The ugly truth about a long film festival like TIFF is that it can be tiring, and after over a week of seeing several movies per day, you’re not nearly as excited to see the next one as you were during that electric first weekend of the festival. You see this with a lot of critics’ reviews of movies from the fest; there’s a lot of “I’ll have to see it again to truly appreciate it” when they’re feeling vaguely positive, and when they’re less so, many will be openly resentful to a film for the fact that it kept them from two more hours of sleep they could have had. This is a necessary contextual acknowledgement to make about reviews that come out of the back nine of the festival, but also to add emphasis to how good Felony is.
Joel Edgerton is becoming more and more familiar to American audiences after the success of movies like Warrior, Zero Dark Thirty and The Great Gatsby, and so hopefully his increased visibility lends itself to a larger number of moviegoers seeing this movie. In addition to starring as our protagonist, Malcolm, Edgerton himself wrote the screenplay. Matthew Saville directs, and it’s either a testament to his good judgment or a mere consequence of Edgerton’s dominating presence as writer and star, but the film as a whole almost takes on the personality we’ve come to see from Edgerton. Those sad sunken eyes, that earnest and straight-shooting demeanor, all these things seem to align with the general tone of this movie, a sad, subtle, complicated tale told with little need for humor and a morality that is as difficult to come down on as it tends to be in real life.
The story of the film centers upon a Sydney cop, Malcolm, who takes a bullet to the vest and is honored with a party celebrating his bravery. On his drive home from the party, after evading a DUI at a stopcheck by uttering the special police code word, he hits a kid on a bike with his driver side mirror. This sets off a chain of events where we encounter a senior detective played by Tom Wilkinson who helps Malcolm cover up his offense, and another young cop played by Jai Courtney who is suspicious of Malcolm and seeks to expose the truth of the incident. The child, meanwhile, is left in a coma, further complicating Malcolm’s decision to withhold the truth of that night.
The incident comes early on in the film, and serves as an indicator of where the story is going, but also of exactly what kind of movie we’re in for. We see the encounter with the biking child from Malcolm’s perspective: when he states later on that he didn’t even hear contact between his car and the bike, we know he’s actually telling the truth. The sound offered in this scene is so minor it’s almost hard to tell whether Malcolm is indeed responsible. We also don’t see whether Malcolm drifted from his lane or other factors that could determine clearer fault, but at the same time, his initial decision to drive while intoxicated is the reason these details are foggy.
These layers of ambiguity are present from this early pivotal scene, as is the principal importance of choice. For a moment after contact with the bike, we see Malcolm stop and have to decide whether to go back or to drive away. To his credit, he gets out of his car and runs back to the bike. To his shame, he doesn’t tell anyone he was the one responsible, and upon the advice of the Wilkinson character, Carl, who arrives on the scene, gives a false statement about seeing another car down the road speeding away from the scene.
The problem is, Jim, the Courtney character, is Carl’s partner, and sees (though does not hear) Carl consulting Malcolm at the scene. This piques his suspicion, as does the fact that this incident is not being treated in the usual way—Malcolm seems to be receiving special treatment from his fellow police officers. Courtney is pleasantly surprising (for those of us who really only know him from that Die Hard movie) in how he makes his character come to life. Jim is the type of do-gooder who is in the right, but with the kind of misplaced self-righteousness that makes it easy to see why other cops would resent him. Add to that the fact that he seems motivated by trying to puts the moves on the injured child’s mother, and you’ve got some real conflict about how to feel about his character.
Wilkinson, as well, maybe more predictably, is outstanding as Detective Summer. The disconnect we feel about these characters—one of Felony’s greatest strengths—comes from the fact that he seems justified in his motivations, but the means he uses to reach them are more difficult to defend. We see the way he uses questionable methods of coercion in a scene where he interrogates a person of interest at her home, but also the passion with which he wants to see someone he is certain is guilty of rather horrific acts brought to justice. The problem is that his certainty may be unfounded, which makes his ends as potentially questionable as the means he uses to bring them about. Still, you can’t help but sympathize with his concerns regarding the failings of the criminal justice system.
Malcolm, meanwhile, is in a constant struggle to come to terms with what he did, both on the night of the accident and the entire aftermath. He’s faced with the type of dilemma where it’s unclear whether he’s more afraid of getting caught lying, or getting away with what he did. Edgerton expresses this desperation beautifully, in his performance and in the script. The weight of his guilt is constantly visible to us, and to Carl’s concern, a little too visible to those around him, such as Jim. Melissa George as Malcolm’s wife is excellent at raising the personal stakes, reluctantly siding with Carl in order to do what she feels most protects her family.
It’s the type of complex moral situation where everybody is kind of right and kind of wrong. The execution is successful based on the fact that it’s nearly impossible to sit in judgment of what these characters decide to do. Mistakes are made, and when you’re not in the situation yourself, it’s impossible to know how you would actually react and deal with a similar scenario. One of the most remarkable visual qualities of Felony is how beautifully lit the night scenes are. Dark events like these are even harder to bear when there’s so much light being shone on them. And yet keeping them in the dark might be worse.
An outstanding, mostly Australian cast working with a morally complex script by lead actor Joel Edgerton makes Felony an absolutely gripping and realistic crime tale.