The Edge takes a page directly from the wilderness yarns of Jack London, and is very self-conscious about it. Majestic geography, bone-chilling isolation, fearsome wildlife; the beauty and terror of nature and man’s quest to conquer all are at the forefront. There’s even a sequence showing the struggle to light a fire under the threat of hypothermia (cf: London’s “To Build A Fire”). Director Lee Tamahori and writer David Mamet take the masculine trappings of their inspiration very seriously, but the 1997 adventure film goes deeper than macho man-vs.-bear fights.
Anthony Hopkins stars as Charles Morse, an eccentric billionaire with an incredible breadth of knowledge who accompanies his much younger model wife (Elle Macpherson, naturally) and a whole fashion photography crew lead by Rob (Alec Baldwin) to an antler-filled lodge in the wilds of Alaska. Rob decides he needs a more believable male lead for his bizarre naked Inuit-themed photoshoot and there happens to be a real Inuit trapper just a quick chopper-ride away. Excited at the prospect of a bit of a foray into the wilderness and anxious to prove his virility to his babely wife who he suspects is sleeping with the asshole photographer, Charles joins them. When the intrepid urbanites alight in their winged chariot for this auxiliary journey, disaster strikes. A bunch of birds fly into the plane’s engines and they crash. Charles and Rob survive and thus our adventure truly begins. Complicating the already high drama of being lost in the Alaskan wilderness, there’s a very hungry Kodiak bear on the loose – and he has a special taste for human flesh.
On the run, disoriented, and unprepared, you’d think the duo would be primarily concerned with the high chances of death that suddenly face them. However, as Charles reminds his companion “most people who die in the wilderness die of shame.” This is, to any rational human, an insane theory to espouse. However, Rob and Charles are not rational humans. They are men in competition, placed squarely into the most extrasocial situation imaginable. Charles’ statement is well-placed and pointed, intended to up the ante. It works, to say the least, and the film becomes a pissing contest. First they compete to see who can keep both of them alive the longest. Once they triumph over the bear and wilderness, they raise the stakes, fighting to see who can survive the other. We should have seen that coming, as the last thing Charles says before the plane crashes is, “So when are you going to kill me?”
In The Edge, the wilderness is just a tool to convey the intense weirdness harbored below the surface of the male psychology. Alec Baldwin and Anthony Hopkins are more than up for the task, each representing perfectly different types of almost unhinged masculinity. Hopkins, of course, leads on portraying the cold, clinical rage of the super-intelligent, while Baldwin leans to the earthier, the impulsive. Each resents the other’s type generally, and from the first scene of the movie a tension exists between the two leading men that threatens to boil over under normal circumstances. Under the dire conditions they find themselves in, the door opens to unleash the primal differences and deep-seated rancor between them in the most extreme sense. Charles makes a point of playing the savior, unfurling crumbs of survivalist wisdom at perfectly desperate moments that make the difference between life and death. Rob relies more on contrarian brute force, thinking that if nothing else, his relative youth and physical vigor will carry him to victory in this battle of the wills. His disappointment when Charles slaughters the bear with a clever flank attack, saving him from being savaged, is a crystallizing moment. From here on, it’s one hundred percent clear that only one man will get out alive, and it’s equally completely understood that the threat is no longer the environment, but each to the other.
It’s also at this point that Mamet decides to definitively give them a reason to fight,Clumsily revealing that, yes, indeed, Rob is having an affair with Charles’ lovely wife. This is supposed to be enough to justify the cutthroat competitiveness between the two men. Making it even more weird, it’s clearly not about love, but about possession. When Charles returns to civilization, he coldly reclaims his prize, now that he’s eliminated the challenger. In some light, the film could be viewed as a wryly satirical statement that humans are but animals, capable of heartless destruction, solely fixated on survival in the world at large and our individualized smaller communities. However, it has a kind of “sorry, not sorry” attitude that implies that anyone should understand actions these men take against one another are the only option when, to a female outsider, their behavior is so clearly insane. There’s no question that it’s satisfying dramatically, but the caveman-cum-psychopath perspective gives The Edge a dash of chauvinist horror that lingers uneasily. God save Elle Macpherson.