This movie really surprised me.

The Ledge is that other movie about a guy on a ledge threatening to kill himself. No one knows this one exists, I guess. I don’t think it had a theatrical release (though it deserved one) even though it has a great cast. The one people are going to notice is Man on a Ledge with Sam Worthington which seems like a version of Inside Man in that it’s kind of a heist movie.

The Ledge is a drama that hinges on faith. I read about it and people called it a directly, vocally pro-Atheism movie and that alone was enough to catch my attention. I expected it to be a lot more preachy and a lot less good than it turned out to be, though. Your mileage may vary considering where it does get a little preachy is largely preaching to the choir for myself and I assume any reasonable person.

The film centers on Gavin (Charlie Hunnam) who appears one day out on a ledge which attracts the attention of the police who send Hollis (Terence Howard) to talk him down. The scenes of Gavin talking to Hollis are the B-story for most of the movie, overtaken by the A-story flashbacks that tell the story of how Gavin happened to be up there about to commit suicide.

The story is that Gavin, a very nice guy with a tragic past, gets mixed up with Shana (Liv Tyler) and Joe (Patrick Wilson). They’re new neighbors and a married couple. Coincidentally, Shana comes to work for Gavin who is a manager at a hotel. Everybody likes him there and we are consistently shown that Gavin is a genuine, funny, and caring guy. This is important because later on, we learn that Gavin is also a meddler with an angry streak. Anyway, Shana’s husband is a pious fundamentalist Christian who is also a meddler with an angry streak. The parallel between he and Gavin is there to illustrate the fundamental ideological differences between them, how they live their lives, and what they represent for Shana.

As Shana gets to know Gavin and he begins seducing her (which he does strategically, at first, showing that he is kind of a dick with his own self-righteous streak), the movie acquits itself well in giving its characters quite a lot of credit. Writer-director Matthew Chapman effortlessly shows that these are flawed people. Gavin isn’t a white knight, Shana isn’t a damsel in distress, and Joe is not an evil wizard. Of course, Gavin and Shana’s flaws ultimately amount to being less extreme than Joe’s. Joe is deranged and misguided and his carefully maintained and articulated faith is a life preserver for his disturbing past.

Still, he’s a guy who hangs out with dying kids even if it is to comfort them with empty words about Jesus and heaven. That counts for something. He’s not an evil man but Shana and Gavin, who begin an affair Joe quickly becomes aware of (he isn’t stupid at all, and it’s refreshing to see that he isn’t treated as such by the film), drive him well over the edge. The point isn’t that he’s justified, as he thinks he is, because of the adultery. Adultery sucks but so does the oppression and psychological exploitation that Joe puts Shana through (though perhaps unintentionally). Gavin represent liberation and happiness as opposed to grateful obligation and Shana should have the freedom to choose, shouldn’t she? By the time it all comes to a head, Gavin has redeemed his earlier dishonorable intentions by falling in love with her. They’re on the verge of coming clean and helping Joe get past it as best they can when Joe finally makes his move.

Patrick Wilson is consistently awesome. In this, he brings in a pretty serious vein of menace bordering on psychosis.

It’s Joe’s sick idea of religious retribution that puts Gavin on that ledge, where he must think about whether or not he has the courage to die for his beliefs. If he doesn’t, Joe will kill Shana. This is an extreme metaphor for the long-held religious argument that atheists and nonreligious people have no morality, no guiding principle, etc. And this is the real challenge of the movie. Will Gavin die for love? Though the movie seems like it’s going to turn into a race against time where Hollis tries to save everyone after figuring it all out, the smart and subtle twist is that Gavin tells his story in such a way as to keep Hollis from figuring it all out until it’s too late to really make a move. Otherwise Shana could die in the attempt to take Joe down. It’s smart, it’s the kind of thinking that I think a rational person (which Gavin is, even to a fault) would do in this situation.

Sprinkled throughout the film are dialogues pertaining to issues of faith and the senselessness of homophobia, oppression of women, etc. These are the preachy bits and Charlie Hunnam brings a fiery conviction to his rational analysis of what he finds ridiculous about faith. Still, he’s a really nice guy and not above a pleasant lie to ease the suffering of another person. And this is what makes him a “good atheist”. There are those who would spare the lie with the same righteous confidence as the born again inform the godless that they need saving from an eternity in hell. This is what makes Gavin a good man. As we learn more about him, we also learn that he hasn’t just coasted through life in contrast to the rock-bottom difficulties both Shana and Joe have won through. Gavin has suffered too, and come out a good man that doesn’t need to lean on a fantasy to survive. He does good even if it isn’t strictly a part of his principles and even his seduction of Shana is, in his view, a way of helping her. .

Unfortunately, it’s also a way of waging war on Joe and his arrogant beliefs. Some of the point of The Ledge is that the solution to the religious folk who go too far over their beliefs is probably not to be found in provoking them to see how crazy they really are. That’s just no-win since atheists, usually reasonable people by definition, are woefully unprepared to go up against the depths of conviction that put bombs on peoples’ bodies, planes into buildings, and guns in the hands of zealots. Joe is such a man, in his own small way, a man who punishes rather than sacrifices. Gavin is a man who sacrifices, ill-equipped to be much more than a victim to the far more aggressive righteous man.

That is a statement about the culture that North Americans, to varying degrees, have to live with at this time when religious fundamentalists are the most dangerous people in the world. Religious aggression has always overshadowed the more genial policies of the non-religious. The mandate to become “militant atheists” is a serious reaction to the realization that the other side is not playing nice and so it is necessary to put aside liberal and humanist live-and-let-live ideals. I wouldn’t call The Ledge a call to arms. It’s more a tragic story that deals specifically with religious fervor as a vehicle to extreme behavior. There are all kinds of stories about modes of thought that lead to this kind of shit, but few in as accessible a medium as film (with well known actors no less) that land on the side of rationality and rational morality.

Hunnam and Tyler have some great chemistry in this film.

I can see this movie being controversial, which is a good thing. A lot of people are going to, rightfully, have a hard time seeing it as black and white. That’s awesome and means high praise (from me at least) for this movie. Obviously I come down on Gavin and Shana’s side. Through Hollis’s subplot with his family more than anything, I believe the movie intends that much. But really, it’s a credit to Chapman that he kept all his characters as flawed as they are rather than making Gavin just a nice guy or Shana just a mixed up girl or Joe just a fanatic psycho.

Because of that attention, The Ledge deserves to be seen as more than a preachy atheist movie. Because it is, like it’s characters, more. It’s an intelligent film with a powerful message in favor of rationality, a mode of thought that is truly under siege. It’s not a well known film, though, so it also deserves a bit of championing. This is my contribution.