Monday, July 16, 2012

Thoughts on "The Ledge"

A spoiler alert of the highest order... 

Based on a surprising recommendation by my dad, I watched the movie "The Ledge" last night.  Not "Man On a Ledge", mind you.  "The Ledge" is a little independent picture that was released last year to some critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, but not much of any other kind of reception.  Which is why it was surprising my dad recommended it; he's a gearhead, not an indie/art-house movie buff.

But he knows the journey I've been on and thought the movie would be a good fit.

It was.

To the point that I watched it and loved it, yet felt sick at my stomach over it and sat up for a good long while after the flick was over, staring at the blank TV screen in the middle of the night, unable to wrap my head around what I was even thinking.

 
“The Ledge” is a character driven movie that focuses on the story of the following people:

Gavin (played by Charlie Hunnam)
Gavin is our anti-hero.  He’s cool and charming, but obviously troubled.  He cares for the underdog (we find out right off the bat that he’s living with a homosexual friend who was terminated from his job when it was learned he had HIV).  He dislikes “the system” and hates religion.

Chris (played by Christopher Gorham)
Chris is Gavin’s roommate.  A gay man who strives to find his place in a local Kabala temple. 

Hollis (played by Terrence Howard)
A detective, a family man, and a devout Catholic.

Shana (played by Liv Tyler)
Shana is a quiet and unassuming young woman of faith, married to Joe.  She is subservient and obviously suppressing something deep inside.

Joe (played by Patrick Wilson)
Shana’s super-religious husband.  Joe is very structured.  He is friendly, but clearly motivated by things he doesn’t always share.  It is obvious that he is hiding something big.

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The movie opens with Hollis sitting in a fertilization clinic, finding out that he cannot donate his sperm to a friend at work and his wife who are unable to conceive on their own.  Hollis is informed that he has a birth defect that has made him sterile from birth.  As the father of two kids, this obviously troubles him.  We later learn that Hollis’s children were fathered by his little brother, whom Hollis’s wife had entered into an “arrangement” with, because Hollis desperately wanted children, his wife didn’t want to lose him, and she wanted to ensure the kids looked as much like Hollis as possible.

Our introduction to Gavin comes as he climbs the fire escape of a building and prepares to jump from the ledge.  Hollis is the detective assigned to “talk him down”.  Hollis quickly learns that Gavin was forced up on the ledge and that if he doesn’t remain there until noon, then jump, someone else will be killed.  The two strike up a conversation and the back story unfolds.

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The back-stories…

Gavin meets his neighbor, Shana, and ends up hiring her to work as a housekeeper for the hotel he manages.  Shana and her husband Joe invite Gavin and his roommate Chris to their apartment for dinner.  Joe promptly asks the men if he can pray “for” them and goes into a plea to God that the two would turn away from what God sees as abominable.  Gavin explains that he isn’t gay, but stands up for Chris who would rather just let the matter slide.

A lengthy dialog/debate develops between Gavin and Joe.  And a love interest develops between Gavin and Joe’s wife, Shana.

Through the course of the movie, we learn that Shana was a drug addict and prostitute before she met Joe.  One night, her pimp set her up with a john who liked to secretly have sex in churches.  What the pimp didn’t tell Shana was that the guy also liked to beat up the women when he was done with them.  She was beaten near death and when she came to, she attempted to steal something from the alter, only to find that it was Sunday and people were beginning to arrive for services.

That was the day she met Joe who “rescued” her from what she’d become.

Joe himself had a dark past, including gambling, drinking, illicit sex, and drugs.  After he lost his family, his job, and hit bottom, he attended a church as a last resort.  He found the forgiveness and meaning that he’d been seeking, as well as a place to belong.  A year later he met Shana and knew immediately that he loved her.

Two years before the movie takes place, Gavin was married with a daughter.  One day, while taking her to school, the two were involved in an auto crash that took his daughter’s life.  A truck driver had a heart attack and came into Gavin’s lane.  He tells Shana that he doesn’t know “if it was instinct, a bad guess, or the will to survive”, but he somehow turned his vehicle in a manner so that his daughter’s side was the one that sustained the impact with the truck.  His wife was unable to forgive him and they divorced.  Following battles with his own personal demons, Gavin begins working at the hotel and putting his life back together.

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The theme...

The main theme of the movie is faith.

Joe blindly clings to his religion as a way to escape what he calls a “disgusting world”.  He remains closed-minded to any other opinions and calls those who have differing opinions “closed minded”.  Shana clings to Joe and to religion to avoid being who she was.  She obviously no longer believes in the religion/faith, but feels indebted to Joe and figures this is better than the potential alternative.

Chris seeks meaning at a local Kabala temple, but after he enters into a relationship with another man and asks the rabbi about marriage, learns that the temple is only so accepting.

Hollis desperately clings to his faith, hoping and pleading, as his world crumbles and he attempts to talk down a suicide jumper, all in the same day.

Gavin picks a fight with every one of them.  He is an atheist and while he acts as though he’s open to others having differing opinions, he isn’t tolerant of them, criticizing and condescending at every opportunity.

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Criticism…

Overall, this isn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen.  Many of the plot developments are overly-convenient.  For example, what are the odds, in a real world situation, that Hollis would leave the side of a potential suicide jumper to take cell phone calls from his wife who just informed him that his children were in fact his little brother’s children?

Another flaw is the over-simplification of characters.  Particularly Joe.  I’ve been on my own faith journey as of late, have many issues with religion, and – even when I considered myself a Christian – I was never a “conservative” one.  I wish Joe wasn’t portrayed as black-and-white as he was.  He was obviously the bad guy from the get-go and it was obviously because he was a conservative Christian, which is what made him the bad guy. 

However, these issues are forgivable in most instances and necessary in some, to tell the greater story.

The great part about this movie is that you don’t just identify with one particular character; you identify with each of them.

Like Joe, I lived a life of sin, and learned to put that behind me when I got serious about my faith.  While Joe is obviously the villain in this film, there is something to be admired about guys like him (minus the murderous stuff you’ll learn about later).  I’m too liberal, lazy, and casual to be as devout as Joe is about anything.  But when I see people approach their religion with his kind of devotion – even when the dogma turns me off – I admire their dedication and discipline. 

Like Hollis, as I struggled through challenging times in life, I leaned desperately on my faith for the strength to continue.  From my perspective now, that kind of hope doesn’t offer much….but to watch someone who has that kind of genuine hope is a beautiful thing. 

Like Shana, I feel indebted to my former faith for the relatively good life I’ve lived up to this point and often feel like it would just be simpler to go along with it, even though I don’t believe it in my heart.  I fear for my daughter’s future that if I don’t give her a similar foundation, that she won’t have “a good life”.  Can I teach her to be moral without the dogma?  For fear of the alternative, sometimes it seems easier just to go along with something I don’t believe – just for her sake.  But I feel bad for Shana.  She obviously doesn’t believe in the life she’s living, which isn’t fair.  She’s a musician, but at her husband’s urging, she’s going to college to become an accountant.  Her spirit longs to be free dogma she doesn’t believe in.

Like Chris, I’m seeking.  I’d love for there to be meaning, but in my heart – at this stage of my life – I simply don’t believe there is any greater meaning.  However, I’ll keep searching for the best parts of faith and attempt to draw strength/inspiration/etc. from them.

Like Gavin, I’m simply at a place where I don’t believe.  I believe people are good, but I don’t think that’s because of anything bigger than us.  At the same time, I see how big the universe is (he points out that the light from some of the stars that he and Shana are looking at took over 200 million years to reach earth), and recognize that all at once that makes us completely insignificant and not at all special – like any other animal...but at the same time, makes us incredibly fortunate to be able to play our tiny little part in all of this.  Gavin obviously believes in love and though my journey of the last year-plus, I’ve continually come back to the phrase, “I may not know what I believe for sure…but I do know there is love”.

I identify most with Gavin, as so much of my worldview is being reframed through a non-religious perspective.  Like him, I want to be able to stand on my own and do the right things because they’re the right things – not because most people do them and most people claim to be religious.  Like him, I recognize the beauty and fragility of life.  As he says, when you remove the possibility of life after death, you’re left with a finite number of years here on earth in this lifetime and it makes you not want to waste a minute of it.

Unlike Gavin, I never want to be such an ass-hat when debating and discussing religion.  I’ll fully acknowledge that I could be all wet (however I’d hope for the same consideration in return) and I strive to understand and appreciate everyone’s unique beliefs. 

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Conclusions/Resolutions…

As you can guess, Joe quickly finds out about Gavin’s affair with Shana – just as Shana makes up her mind to leave him for Gavin.  Joe confronts and threatens Gavin, but lets him go.  Gavin is shortly thereafter notified that Joe has Shane tied up in a hotel room with a gun to her head.  Joe gives Gavin the instructions about how and when to jump off of the building across from the hotel he’s holding Shana in.  As long as he can see Gavin take his own life, he promises to spare Shana’s.

Hollis notices the activity across the street in the other building and sends other officers over to check it out.  He begs and pleads with Gavin not to jump, going so far as to say that he’s had the worst day of his life and if Gavin jumps, it will haunt him (Hollis) for the rest of his life – a weight he’s not sure he can manage.

Gavin, being unable to bear the thought of his love Shana being killed, jumps as the clock strikes twelve, while looking at a picture of his late daughter.  The beauty in an obvious tragedy being that this man, who didn’t believe in a higher being, got to give his life in the name of something bigger; love.

The detectives break into Joe’s hotel room just as Gavin jumps and rescue Shana.  Joe is arrested and Shana is urged by Hollis to stay with some friends that night.  Before she leaves, Hollis delivers Gavin’s final message – a message that Hollis, in an attempt to talk Joe out of jumping – adamantly refused to deliver, and told Shana that Gavin said he loved her.  (Following Hollis’s refusal, just before jumping, Gavin said with a smile, “Of course you will”.)

Shana stays the night with the accepting Chris.

And Hollis – after being continually urged to do so by Gavin who insisted that Hollis’s wife acted out of a place of love – goes home to his family.  He arrives in time for dinner and is greeted by “his” children.  They’ve heard about his day and what happened and give him hugs.  As they sit down to eat, the son begins to offer a blessing for the meal and Hollis informs them they won’t be “saying Grace” tonight.  “Why, Daddy?”  “Because I’m your father and I said so.  That’s why.”  And with eyes locked on his wife’s eyes he says, “OK?”  With a look of understanding she agrees.  “OK”.

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One of my very favorite phrases comes from the title of a hideous country song: Awful, Beautiful Life. 

This life is awful. But it’s beautiful.  Sometimes at the same time.

Life isn’t one or the other.  It’s not black and white.  It’s confounding and complicated; seldom simple.   

Hollis’s wife did a bad thing because she loved her husband and wanted to make him happy.  Was he wrong to go back?  Back to the children that he’d raised and loved?  Were they still “his” kids?

Even when I was a religious person, I recognized that religion could be one of the most dangerous things on the planet.  When someone like Joe is motivated by religion, the consequences can be dire.  But Joe was a troubled and sick individual and not representative of all religious people.

His religion became justification.  Religion should be a guide.

But can you have a guide without the dogma?

Can you believe and still acknowledge that you could be completely wrong?

Can a person who doesn’t believe in a higher power still live a good and “moral” life?

One of my issues with the movie is the adultery.  While it’s central to the plot and necessary for the story, adultery is one of the most disgusting things in the world to me and it’s hard for me to see it depicted in movies.  Most religions forbid adultery, but my views on it have remained the same with and without my religious views; that’s MY sense of morality.  But, as a non-believer, can my set of morals the same for someone like Gavin?

Ultimately, I suppose, I’m the only person that I can truly worry about.  I’m the only one that can hold me accountable.  I can talk with others, learn from others, and respectfully disagree with others.  But they are them.  I am me. 

This is an awful, beautiful life.  The world is huge.  In the grand scheme of things, I mean absolutely nothing to it.  But this makes it even more remarkable that I get to be involved in it, even if only for a short while.  The thought of no life after death makes me want to live this life to the fullest.  I don’t want to live like Shana and be bound by something I don’t believe in.  But I don’t want to be like Gavin and run amok in my lack of guidelines.

Life doesn’t make sense to me without some kind of design or purpose.  But the explanation of a design and purpose that I was raised with and lived my life with doesn’t make sense anymore, either.  No answers offered by a religion satisfy me.  I don’t know the answers.    So I suppose I’ll keep seeking.  I’ll keep living.  I’ll keep acting out this role that I’m fortunate to be able to play.

No matter what – no matter how little I matter to the greater universe – I know how much I matter to my family.  And I know how much they matter to me.  Likewise for my friends.  And my dog.  And the music I love.  And the things I love doing and sharing with people.   And all the little things that make life wonderful.

Despite the awful, it’s a beautiful life.

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