FELONY. Joel Edgerton, Jai Courtney, Melissa George, Tom Wilkinson. Directed by Matthew Saville. 106 minutes. Rated M (Mature themes, violence and coarse language).
‘Felony’ succeeds in turning a simple plot into a moving, subtly thrilling character study. As writer, star and producer, Joel Edgerton has added another impressive Australian film to his not insubstantial canon.
Good detective and loving family man Mal Toohey (Joel Edgerton) is enjoying himself at a Sydney pub with colleagues celebrating a big bust. Finishing up in the early morning, he drives home, consciously over the legal limit for blood alcohol and noticeably impaired. He accidentally clips a young Indian boy on his bike, and the boy is unconscious, and seriously hurt. Mal phones an ambulance and impulsively lies, saying he arrived on the street to see the boy there. Two detectives, the old and experienced Carl Summer (Tom Wilkinson), and young transferee Jim Melic (Jai Courtney), arrive at the scene. Summer begins instructing Mal how to cover up his mistake and botches his breathalyser test for him. Mal drives home to his wife and kids.
From its simple set up, ‘Felony’ presents us several relationships to be tested to their limits by this powerful lie; new detective partners Carl and Jim, old colleagues Carl and Mal, Mal and his wife Julie (Melissa George).
As the judicious Jim labours to uncover Carl’s deceit, his pursuit of justice is admirable, and perhaps a protest of sorts against Carl’s domineering personality. Jai Courtney is a rising international star with a lead in the ‘Terminator’ franchise reboot, and his chops are on display here. He is cool and determined, yet comes unstuck by his personal attachment to the young victim’s beautiful mother. As Carl, Brit Tom Wilkinson dons a largely flawless Aussie accent, and proceeds to chew up the scenery and devour the performers around him. His detective is a character so convinced of his own righteousness that he’ll bet his career on it. Still clinging to part of a ‘club mentality’ from his early days on the job and occasionally haunted by the death of his policeman son, Carl is a very human character powerfully brought to life.
After remorse drives Mal to try to come clean, Carl tries to persuade him otherwise given his own involvement. Edgerton plays a very sympathetic character, governed by primal emotions of fear, hate and love. He is heartbreaking in the third act, and his interactions with the boy’s mother are cautious and tinged with a terror that he will not be able to keep his secret. At home, the guilt crushes his marriage. Melissa George is quiet yet touching, and once Mal opens up to her she is torn between her husband and their shared conscience plagued by the accident. She asserts that they ‘can live with this’, but her resolve is sorely tested by her humanity.
Director Matthew Saville has made a very human, natural film, dealing with the consequences of bad decisions made for good reasons. His staging of the accident itself is insidiously simple, and the lack of spectacle reflects its insignificance before Mal discovers its terrifying reality. Carl says that ‘time and the world swallows events’, but Saville has ensured that these events will truly last. The film’s score, from Saville’s wife Bryony Marks, is brilliant. Thrilling and moving, it evokes a grand, operatic scale which elevates the simple choices and repercussions to an impressive weight. The photography from Mark Wareham is fine, with good use of slow motion and the background space of his framing.
Upon leaving the film, it is interesting to reflect upon who is the classic antagonist in the piece. One would initially posit Summer for insisting Mal maintains his falsities. However it is never that simple, and Edgerton’s writing and Saville’s direction never allow it to appear that simple. Everyone here is convinced of their choices, either wholeheartedly or merely in the moment, and it makes for debate-inducing viewing.
‘Felony’ is a quietly imposing success, and a truly Australian police film. Edgerton has been in the business for a while now, but he shows no signs of running out of steam.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 28.