Felony: Toronto Review


Director: Matthew Saville 
Stars: Tom Wilkinson, Joel Edgerton, Jai Courtney, Melissa George
The Buzz: The Australian drama revolves around three detectives who become embroiled in a tense struggle after a tragic accident leaves a child in critical condition.

A contemplative cop thriller driven by three nuanced lead performances and plenty of moral ambiguity.

Tom Wilkinson, Joel Edgerton and Jai Courtney play Sydney detectives on conflicting sides of a moral dilemma in this taut thriller, which also marks Edgerton's first solo screenplay credit.

TORONTO – After a promising start as co-screenwriter of the 2008 Australian noir The Square, Joel Edgerton delves deeper into murky ethical questions in Felony, his impressive first solo turn at the scripting wheel. Directed with contained intensity and sharp character observation by Matthew Saville, the brooding thriller covers familiar territory but does so with sustained tension and psychological complexity. It creates a bristling dynamic among three Sydney cops drawn into the same compromised situation from different sides, played by Edgerton, Tom Wilkinson and Jai Courtney.

The film opens amid the panic of a drug bust during which Det. Malcolm Toohey (Edgerton) comes close to serious injury when a bullet is lodged in his protective vest. The jumpy handheld camerawork suggests this is going to be another foray into the gritty, high-agitation police drama terrain of TV shows like Southland and recent movies like End of Watch. But Edgerton’s story focuses more on internalized conflicts, and cinematographer Mark Wareham’s shooting style adjusts accordingly, shifting between distanced observation and intimate scrutiny.

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Celebrating the success of the raid with his Drugs Squad buddies that night, Mal does a few shots too many at the pub. While driving home fighting fatigue and drunkenness, he clips a young cyclist, who gets knocked to the road and is out cold. Too shocked to reason beyond the reflex instinct to protect his career, Mal calls the accident in but claims to have arrived on the scene after it happened.

Veteran detective Carl Summer (Wilkinson) is quick to size up the situation, ushering his rookie partner Jim Melic (Courtney) and uniformed police out of the way. He fudges standard procedure such as an alcohol test and a forensics examination of Mal’s car, sending the shaken cop home to his wife and kids after only cursory questioning.

But while the 9-year-old accident victim lies hospitalized in a coma, Jim starts taking a closer look at the facts, finding inconsistencies between Mal’s emergency call and his statement. He takes his concerns to his superior officer, but Carl dismisses them, reminding him that Mal is “one of our own.” Jim’s attraction to the injured boy’s traumatized Indian mother (Sarah Roberts) gives him an emotional stake in the issue, while Mal’s festering guilt prompts him to confess to his wife (Melissa George).

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In its sober contemplation of the ripple effect of a single bad decision, Edgerton’s screenplay is not doing anything especially original. But nor does it stick to predictable paths. It weighs questions of culpability, loyalty and personal and professional integrity with focused intelligence.

Considering that both Mal and Jim are fairly taciturn types – the former because he’s quietly falling apart, the latter by nature – much of the terse drama plays out in stretches of silence. But Saville’s taut direction and editor Geoff Hitchens’ measured pacing ensure that it stays compelling.

Keeping a lid on outward displays of emotion, Edgerton’s rough-hewn features reveal a decent man gutted by the ramifications of his actions and driven to put things right. As a cop too new to the job to understand its codes or to avoid lapses in judgment, Courtney (A Good Day to Die Hard) plays the character’s watchful solemnity against his brawny physical presence. And George has a couple of strong scenes as Mal’s devoted wife, who takes time to process her unexpected reaction.

Doing a passable Aussie accent, Wilkinson makes Carl a man of dark depths. Amiable at first and then increasingly adversarial as he’s challenged, he’s an embittered recovering alcoholic who chafes at the imperfections of the justice system. He sanctimoniously uses that frustration to justify sticking his neck out for Mal, but also to come down on Jim for going solo.

The arrogant convictions of Jim’s youth are sharply reflected in the arrogance of Carl’s experience, which makes him believe he and his cronies are free from accountability.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)

Cast: Tom Wilkinson, Joel Edgerton, Jai Courtney, Sarah Roberts, Melissa George

Production companies: Goalpost Pictures, Blue-Tongue Films

Director: Matthew Saville

Screenwriter: Joel Edgerton

Producers: Rosemary Blight, Joel Edgerton, Michael Benaroya

Executive producers: Ben Grant, Joel Pearlman, Seph McKenna, Lisa Wilson, Myles Nestel, Craig Chapman, Ben Sachs, Logan Levy

Director of photography: Mark Wareham

Production designer: Karen Murphy

Music: Bryony Marks

Costume designer: Joanna Mae Park

Editor: Geoff Hitchens

Sales: Solution Entertainment Group, CAA

No rating, 105 minutes.