Matthew Chapman’s “The Ledge” is sure to provoke plenty of ire. The film, Chapman’s first directorial outing since 1988’s “Heart of Midnight,” opens as a fairly conventional thriller – Gavin (Charlie Hunnam), stands out on a ledge and threatens to jump while detective Hollis (Terrence Howard) plays negotiator. As Hollis pieces together that Gavin’s not up here by choice, we jump into a series of flashbacks that explore a forbidden romance that takes root between Gavin and Shana (Liv Tyler), the wife of Joe (Patrick Wilson). Here’s the particular draw of “The Ledge” (and a marketing plot that’s been too heavily leaned on) – Gavin is a pronounced atheist, and Joe is a fundamentalist Christian. Their beliefs heavily motivate how the events of the film play out and several scenes are imparted to impassioned debate between the two. Depending on which side of that debate the viewer is on, they may balk at Gavin's aggressive tearing down of any and all religion or Joe's faith-based homophobia and general "holier-than-thou" demeanor.
The atheist movement in America and around the world has faced significant opposition, and putting forward a film with an atheist protagonist who is openly intolerant of organized religion is a gamble. Some of the accusations already leveled against “The Ledge” include that the character of Joe is nothing more than a cartoonish exaggeration of a fundamentalist man. This can be expanded to encompass the whole film, dismissing Chapman’s work as nothing more than an overblown morality play. Luckily, due to the efforts of the cast (Wilson has the hardest work cut out for him) and the aforementioned debate scenes, “The Ledge” takes unsteady but definitive steps at perhaps opening up a dialogue on the silver screen. Comparisons to “Brokeback Mountain” already abound, since the Best Picture-nominated cowboy love story served in a way as a groundswell of sentiment for the gay community. Unlike the former film, which was in a way a culmination decades of expounding on gay relationships in an unkind world on film, “The Ledge” is among the first films to put atheism front and center. Where it stumbles most prominently is in an attempt to filter this discussion through the skeleton of a thriller.
The romance between Tyler’s firstly-devout wife and Hunnam’s cocky cynic happens relatively quickly, no doubt helped by the fact that Shana lives across the hall from Gavin. Hunnam gets across Gavin’s standoffish charm – his English accent peeks in at times but it’s not distracting. Gavin is a polarizing protagonist and it’s commendable that Chapman writes him as a man whose reasons for denying God can be linked to a chance tragic event. Tyler’s Shana is a bit thinly written as a woman with a dark past and apparent father issues, but she manages to display how wrestling between self-imposed faith and the allure of temptation takes a toll.
Wilson’s Joe is not as well developed as Gavin, but gets several key monologues that give his character more dimension than simply a vengeance he feels is somewhat justified by his faith. He is clearly the villain of the piece, and Chapman gives us plenty of reasons to dislike the man. Still, Joe’s personal struggle is relatable, and while his response to Shana and Gavin’s tryst is disproportionate (to say the least), his suffering inspires empathy. Meanwhile, Howard’s Hollis seems perfunctory despite the fact that the film is in a way about the transformation his character undergoes. Hollis has some baggage of his own but the subplot, involving questionable Hollis's questionable parentage and the resulting crumbling marriage, is shoehorned in and never feels comfortable in the overall framework. The same goes for Chris (Christopher Gorham), Gavin’s gay HIV-positive Jewish roommate. Gorham gives him personality but Chris seems to exist as another suspended subplot, a reminder that Gavin is more open-minded than Joe.
Overall, “The Ledge” never overcomes its self-imposed genre confines, but also does some of its best work in the context. It’s a film about ideas that wants to be a film about people – and partially succeeds. As a treaty on atheism, it scratches the surface and maybe that’s enough to open the door for some audience members. As a condemnation of religion run wild, it tiptoes on the edge of stereotyping but never totters over and ultimately, "The Ledge" is worth a cautious visit. [B-]