Well, here's something interesting: a cop drama almost entirely free of standard cop drama conventions. Perhaps the film's freshness has something to do with the fact that it's set in Australia rather than in the U.S. or Great Britain, but I suspect it's mostly due to the fact that director Matthew Saville and writer/actor/producer Joel Edgerton (Warrior) are far more interested in exploring the nature of the human conscience than they are in shootouts, drug busts or police corruption. The story they're telling isn't an entirely original one, but at least it isn't covering the worn-out territory visited by most cop dramas (an inevitable consequence of having roughly 2,436 cop shows airing on television at any given moment).
The film opens with Police Detective Malcolm Toohey (Edgerton) in pursuit of one of Australia's most notorious criminals. Toohey gets shot in the process, but a bulletproof vest saves his life. The criminal is caught, Toohey is hailed as a hero and the bulk of the police department (Toohey included) goes out to celebrate with a few drinks. Then, tragedy strikes: while driving home that evening, Toohey accidentally hits a young boy riding a bicycle. The boy is knocked unconscious. There are no witnesses. Toohey is immediately horrified by what he's done, but also realizes that his life will be ruined if he turns himself in. He isn't drunk, but he had a couple of drinks. That will be more than enough to bring him down. He calls an ambulance, and claims that he merely found the boy lying in the middle of the road. “He must have fallen off his bike,” Toohey says.
Veteran Detective Carl Summer (Tom Wilkinson, Michael Clayton) arrives on the scene, pulls Toohey aside and has a few quiet words with him. Suddenly, Toohey changes his story. Yeah, somebody hit the kid, but whoever it was drove away as soon as Toohey got there. The police begin following an empty lead, and Toohey is off the hook. Life goes on, right? Alas, Toohey's conscience refuses to let him move on quickly and painlessly. Meanwhile, rookie Detective Jim Melic (Jai Courtney, Unbroken) begins to notice a few suspicious inconsistencies in Toohey's story.
At times, Felony feels like a less intense variation on something like Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan – a crime drama in which covering up guilt proves every bit as difficult as covering up evidence. Toohey is basically a good man. He's a loving father, a devoted husband, a brave cop and a nice guy. He can't find a way to push his lie to the back of his mind, particularly after learning that the boy he injured remains in a coma and is showing no signs of making a quick recovery. Edgerton's performance is an impressively subtle portrait of inner torment; his sad eyes ever betraying his well-rehearsed lies.
Summer – one of the few people who knows what really happened – senses Toohey's guilt and attempts to put things in perspective. Wilkinson (sporting a not-too-shabby Australian accent) delivers a couple of extended monologues that basically amount to elaborate rationalization. “You don't need to go prison. Prison is for pricks who don't have their punishment up here,” Summer says, tapping the side of his head. Toohey isn't quite convinced. Summer sighs. “Time... time and the world swallows events. And it's sad, but that's how it is. And you and me... you know, the world is gonna swallow us up and who knows in the end if we leave a mark. But we're doing something. And I'd like to think we're doing something with what we're given.”
There are questions worth exploring in Felony, but little in the way of compelling answers. The story wraps up in a manner that feels both too tidy and too coincidental, brushing aside the realistic moral messiness offered by the bulk of the movie (it wouldn't be unreasonable to make a Paul Haggis comparison here). I'd also argue that the film is generally a little too slack, taking 107 minutes to tell a story that probably would have been more effective in 90 (or maybe in 60, as part of a serious-minded anthology drama). Edgerton and Wilkinson both do solid work, but Courtney struggles to make an impression as the straight arrow rookie. Still, it's a thoughtful movie that foregrounds the sort of elements other movies tend to shove to the background. There are no heroes or villains here – only complicated, conflicted, well-intentioned people trying to find a way to live with their sins.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 107 minutes
Release Year: 2014