It’s rare to see difficult, controversial issues explored in a contemporary narrative film, and The Ledge, written and directed by Matthew Chapman, is fearless about the danger of commercial failure it obviously faces. At a time when most movies are not about anything important, this one deserves credit for tackling unpopular themes like religion-fueled homophobia and atheism. It eventually fails, not because of its philosophical ideas, but because it introduces so many of them at the same time that even a viewer with a score pad can’t keep up.
A distraught young man named Gavin (British actor Charlie Hunnam, the original lead in the original English television production of Queer as Folk) steps out on the top tier of a tall building to commit suicide. A cop named Hollis (Terrence Howard) is dispatched to talk him out of it. This is not a good day for either of them. Gavin is a hotel manager who is having an unhappy affair with a troubled hotel employee and accounting major named Shana (Liv Tyler, too long in the tooth to be a convincing undergraduate). Hollis is a devout Catholic and loyal husband who has just discovered he’s been sterile since birth and suddenly realizes his two children are not his own. Gavin also has a roommate with AIDS, which saddles the film with another weighty issue to contemplate, and Shana also has a fanatical born-again Christian husband named Joe (Patrick Wilson) who causes problems for them all.
Gavin has a deadline. If he doesn’t jump by 12 noon, somebody else will die, for reasons that are not revealed until the end. “On the subject of faith,” the cop asks the man on the ledge, “do you have any?” This gives the cynical white man with no hope and the disillusioned but spiritual black man with the survival pep talk plenty of time to knock around numerous viewpoints on death, adultery, minority freedoms, gay rights and the distrust earned by the human race in general. As partners on the ledge, Mr. Hunnam’s conflicted Gavin and Mr. Howard’s distracted Hollis seem more believable than the rest of the characters in the movie put together. They could easily trade places.
Since neither can leave the scene, their stories are related in flashbacks. We see Shana and Joe invite their new neighbors, Gavin and his gay roommate Chris, to dinner, mistaking them for lovers. Gavin storms out when Joe references a passage in the Bible condemning them to hell, then offers to pray for their sins. It’s a rupture that grows deeper when Gavin falls in love with the suppressed Shana, who is sexually unfulfilled but obligated to Joe for curing her drug addiction. Gavin has been deceived by Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the death of a daughter. God is just another imaginary friend. To Gavin, God creates wars, genocides, earthquakes and plagues. To Joe, the beauty of eternal salvation is that God gives life meaning. It all turns into an abstract debate between blind faith and a failure to accept heaven as a valid concept without a shred of evidence. Good ideas, to be sure, for a better movie, but the characters in The Ledge exist for the sole purpose of argument, and the script is too narrow to engage the viewer unconditionally.
No spoilers, but the talk all leads to the inevitable confrontations between Joe and Gavin, Joe and Shana, Gavin and Hollis, and Joe reading the 23rd Psalm with a loaded gun in his hand. Although no setting is identified, the film was shot in Baton Rouge, La., and the river view in the background is clearly the muddy Mississippi. The direction is perfunctory, the actors all good with the exception of Liv Tyler, who looks less like Ava Gardner than usual—probably because she’s stripped of all makeup and drab as a bone. In the supporting cast, I especially liked Christopher Gorham in the small but pivotal role of Gavin’s gay roommate Chris. The atheist makes the most challenging case for debate, but he’s too arrogant and close-minded to be a true liberal, while the fundamentalist fanatic spouts the kind of extremist fire-and-brimstone dogma and religiously inspired hate that makes him not only unsympathetic in 2011, but naïve. The only suspense in The Ledge centers on one question: Will he jump or not? You eventually find out, but it’s hardly worth the wait.
Running time 101 minutes
Written and directed by Matthew Chapman
Starring Liv Tyler, Charlie Hunnam, Patrick Wilson, Terence Howard