Prologue – “It’s a standard motif.”
Early in The Edge, our hero is put through the first of what will prove to be, over the course of the film, a series of increasingly difficult physical, mental, and, ultimately, moral trials in his quest for survival. In this, he joins a long line of classic heroes, foremost amongst them Odysseus, the Greek king who found himself lost at sea for 20 years. Our hero’s journey won’t take quite that long, but the trials he faces will prove just as difficult. Why shouldn’t they? These trials are nothing new, after all. They are, as our hero himself puts it, a “standard motif.”
The billionaire Charles Morse (Anthony Hopkins) is part of a traveling party comprised of fashion industry pros that have arrived at a rustic, riverside cabin lodge in Alaska for a photo shoot. He’s tagged along as the guest of his supermodel wife, and—though he is clearly the most famous person present, thanks to his wealth and status—he is also the odd-man-out. Shy and serious, he cuts an awkward figure against this glamorous jet set.
It’s clear that he’s never figured out how to interact with his fellow man—or, for that matter, woman; even in private he acts like a nervous schoolboy around his wife. His billions have done nothing to loosen him up—if anything, they’ve only isolated him more. He finds himself, despite his best efforts, suspicious of just about everyone with whom he comes in contact. They all want his money; or his wife; or, as is the case with darkly handsome photographer Bob (Alec Baldwin), both.
Yet, Charles’s defining quality is not his antisocial nature. Neither is it his stature, nor his money. It is, rather, his intelligence—often imperfect, sometimes grating, but always recognizably human.
This same intelligence will serve as his greatest weapon after he, along with Bob and Stephen (the sadly doomed photographer’s assistant, played by perennially underrated character actor Harold Perrineau), go off on their own to run an errand—only to find themselves stranded in the brutal Alaskan wilderness after surviving a horrific plane crash, with no food, no shelter, and little hope of rescue. Oh, and also a man-eating Kodiak bear relentlessly pursuing them.
But that all comes later. First things first: Charles is given a pop quiz.
After proffering some unsolicited advice to the travel lodge’s salt-of-the-earth caretaker regarding the proper way to sight a rifle, Charles finds himself the center of attention. His wife tells the caretaker that Charles knows the answer to everything, and bets that the caretaker can’t stump him. The caretaker takes that bet. He removes an old Native American paddle from off the wall. On the visible side of the paddle is carved a panther. The caretaker—having gained the rest of the party’s attention by this point—tells Charles that he will give him five bucks if he can guess what’s carved on the other side.
Of course Charles knows. It’s a rabbit, smoking a pipe.
As the group applauds, Bob speaks up:
Why in the world would that be, Charles?
Charles, of course, has an answer:
Uh, well, it’s a symbol of the, uh, Cree Indians. On one side there’s the panther, on the other his prey, the rabbit. Uh, he sits, unafraid. He smokes his pipe. It’s a traditional motif.
It is the caretaker who asks the next question, showing, for the first time, genuine curiosity rather than amusement.
Why is he unafraid?
The Edge is one of the more meta-movies about what Joseph Conrad once dubbed “The Hero’s Journey.” A flop at the box office, but later a staple of cable television, the film’s reputation has only grown over the years—though it’s still widely under seen, and is often regarded as “that bear movie with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin.”
That’s not an inaccurate description. Equal parts Jaws and Alive, The Edge fits into the “animals attack” genre as much as it does “man vs. wild.” Yet, the absence of one particular name has always sold the movie short. Really, The Edge should be known as “that bear movie with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, written by David Mamet.”
This is not to sell short the director of the film, New Zealander Lee Tamahori. He makes the most of the rugged yet gorgeous terrain that serves as his setting, without sacrificing the thread of the story or its narrative propulsion to grand, empty visuals.
For all he brings to it, though, Tamahori is a journeyman director doing a journeyman’s work. When we watch The Edge, it’s Mamet’s vision that we’re truly witnessing—which is how it should be. Mamet is one of the few screenwriters to whom the auteur theory can be applied, even when someone else is directing from his script. The average moviegoer might not be as familiar with Mamet’s name as they were during his salad days in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but it’s likely they’re familiar with his dialog, considering how often his most famous work still gets referenced today (I mean, COME ON).
It would be more appropriate, therefore, for the film to be titled David Mamet’s The Edge—except that it shouldn’t even be known as The Edge in the first place. That was merely the name the studio came up with after refusing to use Mamet’s original title: Bookworm. Which is entirely understandable; it must have been hard enough to sell a mid-budget action movie starring Anthony Hopkins to the masses. Of course, once you watch the movie, you realize that Bookworm makes complete sense in context, while also being just ironic enough to undercut its inherent silliness.
Despite the studio meddling in regards to the title, the rest of the film is entirely faithful to Mamet’s vision. It’s a vision that works as a through-line from some of his earliest work to the films that he would go on to direct afterwards. And, if we go beyond the scope of his art (something he would probably discourage, despite how much he clearly relishes being in the spotlight), we can get some insight into the man that Mamet has become.
Most importantly, though, it’s a vision that conveys a complex but ultimately clear moral wisdom that teaches us not simply how to survive, but how to live.
II. “I never knew anybody that did actually change their life.”
Most movies, at least those with any sense of heightened drama, are about survival. But to say so is too broad an analysis—in most cases, such would fail to convey any actual resonance in regards to a film’s deeper interests, or about the notion of survival itself. Not so with the films and plays of David Mamet.
Think of the low-rent hustlers of American Buffalo, the alcoholic lawyer trying to do the right thing for the first time in The Verdict, the old-school Irish policeman making his last stand in The Untouchables, Jimmy Hoffa in Hoffa. These are all characters that struggle, and often fail, to survive in the face of their obsolescence. Foremost amongst these are, of course, the doomed salesmen of Mamet’s most famous work, Glengarry Glen Ross.
Despite Mamet’s professed hatred of politically motivated art, there is no perhaps no work of drama that better presents the cut-throat reality of Reagan-era economics and the brutalities of social Darwinist capitalism. First place is a brand new Cadillac; second place a set of lovely steak knives. Third place? Third place is you’re fired. The men at the center of Glengarry Glen Ross know that they can’t always come in first, or even second place. Theirs is a battle for survival that they have no chance of winning. And yet they fight on, oblivious to the truth that one day—likely sooner rather than later—they will lose that fight.
Mamet’s outlook begins to change with The Edge, which marks not so much a noticeable turn in direction as it does a paring down of this idea to its most basic and stark components. The struggle for survival becomes simultaneously more literal and existential. The heroes of Mamet’s later movies are no longer blustery, wannabe conmen or working class marks. They are instead the stoic ideals of long-lost tradition, the type of men for which his older characters mistook themselves. Their individual struggles for literal physical survival begin to take on mythic proportions, and become stories about the survival of human honor in a world in which it has all but vanished. And yet, unlike their messy, rumpled predecessors, these new Mamet heroes usually prevail. Often at a great personal cost, but still they prevail.
Think of Robert De Niro’s wandering samurai in Ronin, who saves the world time and again while never finding a home in it; Val Kilmer’s Army Ranger in Spartan, a living weapon who grows a conscience, and, in acting on behalf of it, finds himself exiled from the country he’s dedicated his life to; Gene Hackman’s ultra-cool mastermind in Heist, the last living thief-with-honor; and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s jiu jitsu master in Redbelt, who finds himself entangled by a criminal conspiracy and must use the techniques he’s mastered to slip out of its grips and best it.
These are all men who have devoted themselves to a larger cause. Like the heroes of antiquity on which they are clearly based, they must make the conscious effort to survive the series of trials that they are put through, so as to prevail on behalf of that cause. Their defeat would be the defeat of the human spirit. Luckily for us, Mamet seems to be saying, such men do still exist.
Charles Morse, as embodied by the stately Anthony Hopkins, is the bridge between the early Mamet protagonists and the idyllic versions that come later.
Mamet suggests as much during the start of The Edge’s third act. Charles travels with Bob, with whom he has formed a close bond after they’ve managed, against all odds, to kill their beastly tormentor. He’s dressed in the skin of their fallen foe, so that he resembles an actual hero of old come unstuck in time. Charles and Bob happen upon a gorgeous sunrise coming up just over the peak of a snow-covered mountaintop, where they stop and exchange the following dialogue:
I said if this is my life, then this is my life. But you can change your life.
That’s what I’m telling you.
Is that true?
Why wouldn’t that be true?
Because I never knew anybody that did actually change their life…I tell you what, I’m going to start my life over.
III. “They die of shame.”
It’s hard not to see Charles as an avatar for Mamet himself, as much as he is the prototype for the masculine ideals that would end up populating his later work. Of course, no one could ever accuse Mamet of being a shy wallflower like Charles is at the beginning of The Edge. But it’s clear that Mamet finds in him a kindred spirit, as when Charles says of the knowledge he’s accumulated through his life of serious reading, “It’s not an accomplishment. It’s a freak…I seem to retain all these facts, but putting them to any useful purpose is another matter.”
How long must Mamet—a noted handyman and black belt in jiu jitsu—have dreamed himself in the same situation, lost in the wild, armed with only his knowledge and will, ready to turn it into action, before deciding to put it down on paper?
But it is not just Charles as last-nerd-standing that Mamet seems to identify with; it’s also Charles the out-of-place one-percenter. Mamet has regularly made known his disdain for the movie business, so it’s no accident that the companions the hero is saddled with are members of the only industry—fashion—that is considered more indecent and less substantial than Hollywood. Nor is it by accident that, in the end, Charles learns his suspicions about people wanting him only for his money or his wife are well-founded. Baldwin’s Bob comes to rely on Charles’s wisdom and cunning to survive only until they are literally and figuratively out of the woods. At that point, the old desires and resentments take over and he betrays him.
Of course, for as much as Charles is the ideal that Mamet wishes to live up to, it’s his inner Bob that he seems to be struggling to leave behind. As the lead photographer for the traveling group, Bob is, for all intents and purposes, a director. He fancies himself an alpha male, yet he works in what is considered one of the least masculine professions there is—much like how Mamet came from the theater. And although he is a part of the new-moneyed elite, his resentments stem from an obvious blue-collar background.
We get the sense that Mamet, a fierce critic of anti-Semitism, is airing his own grievances when he has Bob yell at Charles, during his weakest moment, “You fucking make me sick! I mean, what puts you off? Jews and taxes!” He even has Bob reference Fitzgerald’s famous line to Hemingway about the rich being different from the rest of us.
It comes down to, as Charles says at one point, shame. Mamet, the man, did not go out into the wilderness to find his truest and best self, and thereby overcome his shame. He took the route much more common for middle aged white men: he became an outspoken conservative, riding an understandable opposition to political correctness full into the embrace of the Tea Party. He published a widely read essay “Why I Am No Longer a Brain-Dead Liberal,” which later became a full-length book, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture, all about the perils of liberalism.
There has always been a noticeable streak of conservatism running through Mamet’s work, be it in the theme of “white-man’s burden” central to films such as Homicide, Edmond, and Oleanna, or in the disgust he shows for white liberal elites in Wag the Dog, State & Main, and Redbelt. While none of these examples on their own are enough to assume that depiction equals endorsement, it’s a noticeable enough attitude throughout his work that no one’s ever mistook him for a bleeding heart.
That he has been less outspoken recently than during the Obama era is also not surprising. Perhaps more than any other writer, Mamet is known for tapping into the psychology of con artists. As conservative as he is, it’s hard to imagine him falling for so obvious a hustler as Donald Trump (especially as the latter has allied himself with so many blatant anti-Semites).
This all is of note only because it puts the The Edge into a deeper context: much as it served as his means of transition for the stories he would tell afterwards, it also foreshadows his later hard right turn.
For those who do not share Mamet’s political outlook, it can be uncanny watching this movie post-Great Recession. It seems unlikely that a studio today would bankroll a movie that asks the audience to unironically root for a Wall Street billionaire, assuming they were still bankrolling mid-budget action-dramas of this sort in the first place. And yet, that uncanniness does nothing to negate the true wisdom that lies at the heart of the film, as exemplified during a pep talk Charles gives to his fellow castaways:
You know, I once read an interesting book which said that, uh, most people lost in the wilds, they, they die of shame…Yeah, see, they die of shame. ‘What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?’ And so they sit there and they… die. Because they didn’t do the one thing that would save their lives.
And what is that, Charles?
IV. “ ‘Cause today, I’m gonna kill the muthafucker!”
Ultimately, for whatever else Mamet is saying in The Edge about wealth, privilege, or resentment, there is one central truth that he conveys in what, by far, is the most powerful scene in the film. It is, to me, the greatest rise-to-the-occasion movie speech ever given (except for possibly Animal House’s “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?”).
Unlike all of the down-by-double, half-time speeches given across our sports movies, unlike all of the pre-battle military speeches given to ragtag armies in our war and fantasy epics, it makes no appeals to ideals such as freedom, honor, brotherhood, country, legacy or victory. Instead, it calls upon something greater than any of those notions. It calls upon that which is true.
Charles and Bob are at their most desperate. They are starving, freezing, and lost, and the bear is closing in on them. Bob is content to give up and die, but not Charles. He devises a plan to take the fight to their stalker, setting up an improvised deadfall trap that will impale the bear by using its own weight against it.
Bob is not convinced. After all, what chance do they reasonably stand of pulling off such an elaborate plan and escaping with their lives?
As good a chance as anyone else. Charles points to the example of young boys: 11-year-old boys of Masai tribe in Africa, who kill tigers with spears; Native American boys in America who would, to earn their manhood, go up to bears and slap them in the face. If they could do such, then so can Charles and Bob. It is here that The Edge makes its greatest appeal:
You want to die out here, huh? Well, then die. I tell you what, I’m not going to die. No siree, I’m not going to die. No, I’m gonna to kill the bear. Say it: I’m gonna kill the bear. Say it: I’m gonna kill the bear. SAY IT: I’M GONNA KILL THE BEAR. Say it!
I’m gonna kill the bear.
Say it again!
I’m gonna kill the bear!
I’m gonna kill the bear!
Good! What one man can do, another can do!
What one man can do, another can do.
Say it again!
What one man can do, another can do.
What one man can do, another can do!
Yeah. You’re goddamn right. ‘Cause today, I’m gonna kill the muthafucker.
Epilogue – “Why is the rabbit unafraid?”
Charles, like Odysseus before him, eventually finds his way back home, the sole survivor of his arduous, epic journey. Like his Greek forbearer, he must confront an unfaithful spouse upon his return. Unlike Odysseus, who forgives and then reconciles with his wife, it seems clear that Charles’ marriage is over. Where he goes from there is anyone’s guess. But it’s not hard to imagine that, having found his true potential far from society, he would—much like the version of Odysseus in Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses—undertake a new journey back into the unknown.
Before he can do that though, he stops to greet the caretaker from the film’s opening, who stands at the head of the assembly that’s gathered to meet Charles upon his return. Their roles reversed, it is Charles who puts forth the question, and the caretaker who has the answer at the ready:
Why is the rabbit unafraid?
Because he’s smarter than the panther.
In the end, life comes down to thinking. By thinking we recognize, as does Charles, that survival is a matter of looking to our fellow man. We can trust their example, even if we can’t always trust them. Whatever it is confronting us, be it a panther, a bear, or our own worst impulses, we know we can overcome them, because others have overcome them before. What one man can do, another can do.