I love revenge films. There is something so brutally honest about them that it may be uncomfortable for most to admit. These films echo a elemental perception of justice to which almost all of us would like the world to subscribe at least once or twice. This idea was communicated frequently, with varying degrees of success, within exploitation and cult cinema. Death Wish, Lady Snowblood, Rolling Thunder, Foxy Brown, Vigilante, Walking Tall all celebrated the idea that when the concept of right and wrong are subverted by bureaucratic mandates, the average person has the violent capacity to balance the scales. They are often appreciated at face value because the violence both supplies the entertainment and monopolizes the emotional content. That’s what I was expecting from Martin Campbell’s Edge of Darkness, and I was excited to see my expectations realized. That’s not what I got, and I couldn’t be happier.
Edge of Darkness is the story of detective Thomas Craven. Craven’s daughter, whom he does not see regularly, comes home for a visit and he is elated. While preparing dinner for her, his daughter becomes violently ill and tells him she needs to go to a hospital. As they step onto the porch, a masked man cries out and unloads both barrels of a shotgun right into the daughter’s chest, killing her. Craven is devastated and sets out to find her killer. The investigation he undertakes leads him down some very troubling roads and with each new contact he makes, the danger of what he’s uncovering becomes more and more apparent. To complicate things even further, a mysterious British stranger turns up to warn Craven that his efforts may earn him an untimely, and very nasty, demise.
I loved Edge of Darkness precisely because it was more than I expected. I am a big fan of Taken, to which this film seemed to be garnering a great deal of comparison based on the trailers. Part of what I like about Taken is its simplicity and single-mindedness. But Edge of Darkness takes the paternal retribution aspect and adds a considerable amount of subtext and depth of character. The vengeance component is secondary to the investigation; the quest for truth. Craven becomes ruthless and is never afraid to act, but his dedication to uncovering the secrets behind his daughter’s death is what really drives momentum of the story. It’s almost a film noir with the damaged, hard-boiled detective uncovering layer after layer of an otherwise simple crime. The conspiracy runs deep and is exceedingly ugly but rarely, if ever, convoluted. The action scenes are not plentiful, but they are brutal and grandiose when they arise.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Mel, and I must say he is back with brilliant authority. His character work is captivating and demonstrates a return to form. This is his best performance since Braveheart; hands down. Something that Edge of Darkness does better than any other revenge film I’ve ever seen is address the sorrow of loss. Typically, rage is the principal emotion conveyed by a revenge film, but Edge of Darkness explores all facets of the nightmare of losing a child to violence. Craven actually takes the time to grieve before setting out to punish those responsible. These moments are where Gibson truly shines. He has continuous hallucinations of his daughter as a little girl; a testament to his pain. In one particular vision, he sees his daughter as he is shaving and playfully teaches her to shave her own face using a comb. The moment is, on the surface, played for cutesy laughs, but it completely broke my heart and brought tears to my eyes. Gibson communicates overwhelming pain and sadness just as effectively as explosive anger. He also has the uncanny ability to stoically deliver a powerfully sincere threat that resonates with both the audience and the recipient.
Ray Winstone is equally fantastic, and the two of them have an interesting chemistry. The mutual respect between their characters is peppered with a mistrust that borders on hatred; it’s a very compelling dynamic. Winstone commands attention each time is on screen. Granted, his character is set up to be the one with the darkest past and the most nefarious occupation, but it goes deeper than that. Winstone seems to fully occupy the world of his character, the world largely unseen by the audience. Like Gibson, there is a quiet intensity to Winstone but in his portentous warnings to Gibson he actually provides a strange sort of guidance that defines not only their relationship but amplifies the film thematically. My only issue with Winstone is his accent gets really thick at times and it becomes difficult to understand him.
Don’t get me wrong, Edge of Darkness is supremely entertaining. But the depths of humanity it explores as well as the the complex catharsis of finding “whole truth” adds a great deal. I also loved how far they pushed the convention of someone truly having nothing to lose. A lot of the credit here has to go to Martin Campbell who not only elicits phenomenal performances from his actors but utilizes all of his tools to tell his story in the most effective manner he can. I don’t often notice lighting design, but I couldn’t help but take note of it in Edge of Darkness. Nearly every scene, indoors or out, is almost completely in shadow. The interiors of Craven’s home are lit by lights in rooms just out of frame and the scenes of him in the park, in broad daylight, are surrounded by monstrous tree shadows. It is really terrific and touches on another thematic element that I don’t want to go into because it would spoil things. Sufficed to say this is a great film that pulls no punches and elevates the revenge film to an entirely new playing field.
The Upside: An amazing revenge film that is a cut above and features one of Mel Gibson’s absolute best performances to date.
The Downside: It may disappoint those expecting the lighting pace of Taken or the exploitation factor of Payback.
On the Side: Martin Campbell also directed the 1985 BBC series on which this film is based.