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Melody Breyer-Grell

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Sundance/IFC's The Ledge -- God as Opiate

Posted: 05/27/11 07:09 PM ET

Can't get out to the art house? Want an early peek at an "Independent Film Channel's feature? Having fully embraced the concept of streaming movies, I visited www.sundancenow.com and had my own personal sneak preview of a new psychological thriller -- The Ledge.

The Ledge held me on the edge of my seat from start to finish, which is a very good thing these days, when I am tempted to give up on many pictures after only five minutes. An imperfect film, it perhaps deals with too many issues to be completely successful, but the ones it succeeds with are worth the investment.

The opening frames of the movie are immediately visually stunning. Shot so cleanly and sharply as to almost look like a graphic novel, the first shots use as backdrop the flickering towers of an oil refinery that is never visited and only mentioned briefly, but it sets the mood and draws us in with its unconscious imagery.

We are soon brought to a glaring reality as Hollis (Terrance Howard -- one of the film's producers) is getting the bad news that he is sterile. It is especially bad considering that his loving wife has supposedly borne his two children.

Attempting to leave work early (he is a detective) after his shocking doctor's visit, a distracted Hollis is called in on a would-be jumper and what follows is his attempt to talk him down while receiving imploring calls from his wife. The jumper is not in any rush and is eager to share what has led him to this point in his life, although he appears uncompromisingly set on his planned deed.

Most of the picture goes to flashback as Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) accounts his forbidden romance with the wife of a religious zealot. In his attempt to free her from her husband's rigid "Born Again" impositions, he opens up a can of worms that moves the action very quickly and heatedly to the point of no return.

This is no ordinary religious couple but one which has actually been saved by the promises of heaven in return for a clean lifestyle, as we learn that Shauna (an irresistibly subtle, yet alluring Liv Tyler ) is not the prim, serious girl that the opening scenes suggest. She confesses to her ardent seducer that she was abandoned by her father -- eventually becoming a heavy drug user and prostitute. Her husband Joe (Patrick Wilson) literally saved her as she lay bleeding in the church that she was beaten in by a kinky john.

With the plot set in motion the film sets out to thrill us and take on the ever conflicting subject of faith vs. atheism. Not just religious faith, but faith in people, marriage, and an examination of life's uncontrollable tragedies.

The film is most successful and incisive when it comes to Gavin's description of the manner with which he will seduce Shauna. He will flirt then pull back and let her become obsessed with him -- against her will and better judgment. He is one a damaged fellow. The games he plays are very authentic and lead to a very sexy yet restrained coupling.

Sadly the filmmaker (director/writer) Matthew Chapman allows some polemic to creep into the story. Gavin's ardent support of gay rights seems tacked on as does the relationship between him and his gay roommate. The language becomes stilted and P.C. whenever the subject is broached. It is an unnecessary plot device -- used to reveal Joe as an ardent homophobe and fundamentalist creep. Being that main story is between the trio of the aforementioned characters, Joe's malevolence should have been revealed organically rather than politically. This excellent film might have been a great film if it was allowed to unfold that way.

Wilson shows his considerable range in a piece of deliciously controlled scenery chewing. He is truly scary, which adds to the entertainment value of the film, but quells any chance of him being sympathetic. Hunnam is often compelling but sometimes a bit stiff, though I think it was the dialog that forced him to voice many abstract ideas rather than emotions.

Liv Tyler is hypnotic as the good/bad girl and Terrance Howard in his smaller, yet key role is always fun to watch. His predicament with his wife is not really believable, but it did provide the film with a satisfying conclusion.

The most interesting thing I came away with is the oft made comparison to religion and opiates. Tyler, upon being invited to star gaze by Hunnam (in his secular attempt to make her feel part of the universe) claims that the experience is not as much fun as church, which clearly is her substitute for the euphoria she misses in her abstinence from drugs. Karl Marx, anyone?

Available now at www.sundancenow.com -- In theaters July 7th