Felony is handcuffed by lack of depth

Frequent visitors of a popular film review site will know that some films are rated rotten tomatoes, and some films are rated fresh tomatoes. There’s a third type, however, that includes most other movies and often goes unwritten about: the tomato that has been left in the fridge a little too long and lost a bit of flavor.

From Matthew Saville comes just that sort of film: the thriller Felony, a gritty psychological investigation into honesty and loyalty that, instead of inciting an intense emotional response to an unquestionably dark story prefers to instill in viewers a collective urge to shrug their shoulders and sigh, “meh.”

In Australia, after celebrating a successful drug bust, police officer Malcolm Toohey (Joel Edgerton) drives drunk and hits a paperboy who is delivering the morning news from his bicycle. When veteran detective Carl Summer (Tom Wilkinson) arrives on the scene, it doesn’t take him long to figure things out and construct an alibi to save Toohey’s career. He arranges a cover up that, among other things, pins the accident on a fictional hit and run driver.

Things begin to unravel when his rookie partner Jim (Jai Courtney) begins to notice inconsistencies in Toohey’s story and the ensuing investigation. As tensions mount, the three men begin to question each other’s values of justice, guilt, innocence and ultimately, each other.

The film was screened as a special presentation at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and now gets a bigger bite at the apple with an international release this month. Unfortunately, Felony has bitten off more of the apple than it can chew, and feels a bit haphazard in its approach to an otherwise sharp premise.

For example, Felony is rather schizophrenic in its takeaway: as the story unfolds, it is unclear just what Felony wants us to think, and just when we’re sure we’ve zeroed in on the big reveal, the clutch thuds and the gears shift. In a suspenseful thriller such as this, the one thing we aren’t supposed to be guessing is the movie’s message, and yet the distracted nature of the flick quickly switches from a criticism of police loyalty to truth telling, and yes, even to the inappropriateness of a cop making sexual advances towards a mother whose boy lies dying a boy in a coma (for shame!)

Correspondingly, Felony also feels a bit scatterbrained in its story line: while its use of several subplots to build a more convincing background for the main drag is an admirable attempt, what it really ends up doing is tying a Gregorian knot of sorts full of loose ends and lacking backstories.

Case in point is Malcolm, who viewers will surely be disappointed in given his immense potential to carry the movie’s emotional load. Hilariously, we are never really sure who Malcolm is, what he wants in life, what drives him, and what’s going on in his brain. Put simply, Joel Edgerton fails to sell Malcolm’s pain to the audience, and ends up instead portraying himself as a big whiner. While Summer and Courtney produce characters with very compelling and clear personalities, Toohey produces characters in Malcolm that we desperately want to feel bad for, but for some reason just can’t This is emblematic of a broader anchor that keeps the film’s ship docked safely in mediocre harbor. Across the board, the film is held back by the lack of a convincing backstory for any of the characters: they are clearly defined in the moment, but their motivations and personal experiences are totally unexplored.  Edgerton’s performance is a notable exception: the veteran actor creates a gritty picture of a battle hardened detective willing to do anything at any cost, and it’s effective.

Here’s the sparknotes version: watching Felony is like watching the producers try several times to pin the tail on the donkey, but only after being spun around a few extra times and told the donkey is several feet to the left of its actual location.

One question the film creatively asks listeners to sort out is, who’s the protagonist? If nothing else, the film correctly and bluntly brings human nature back to earth by smartly reminding audiences that even the goody-two-shoes of this world are not without serious problems. In this way, the movie deserves praise for not falling into the trap of some films to create a hero who can seemingly do no wrong. There is no such character in Felony, and the film’s honesty is oddly refreshing.

Nevertheless, Felony is like gourmet prison food served to real-life felons: it’s certainly full of surprises, but doesn’t have anything special. A little more emphasis on character depth and slightly more humanized characters would have done it well—but as it stands, potential viewers would do better to spend their time in the rec yard elsewhere.