Sex, Love, Revenge ... and Atheism? Finally, a Big New Film That Shows Non-Belief in a Positive Light

A young man walks toward the ledge of a tall building. He is clearly filled with trepidation and even terror; at the same time, he has an equally clear air of purpose and resolve. That resolve: To jump.

It soon comes out that the man is an atheist. And the audience's first thought might be, "Oh, right. Atheism -- depressing, joyless, no sense of meaning or life's value. Why wouldn't he just kill himself?" But the story unfolds in places that are miles away from any such predictable path. Far from being depressed or joyless, the potential jumper, Gavin (Charlie Hunnam), has a singular joie de vivre. Far from having no meaning, his life is filled with compassion and intense moments of connection, both large and small. And his suicide attempt is not, as it turns out, a result of his seeing life as valueless and meaningless. It is, instead, an expression of his deep sense of how precious life is.

For reasons I can't tell you without giving away the ending.

Let's get this out of the way right at the start: I enjoyed the heck out of "The Ledge," and am recommending it heartily to pretty much everyone. Atheists, believers who are curious about atheists, people who just like good movies -- I recommend "The Ledge" to all of you. Written and directed by Matthew Chapman (author of Trials of the Monkey: An Accidental Memoir and 40 Days and 40 Nights: Darwin, Intelligent Design, God, Oxycontin, and Other Oddities on Trial in Pennsylvania, as well as Charles Darwin's great-grandson), "The Ledge" is smart, riveting, complex, emotionally engaging, visually gorgeous... and best of all, almost entirely unpredictable. Its characters are, well, human -- likable, aggravating, tough, loving, damaged -- and the story is unpredictable in exactly the ways that human beings are unpredictable. It's not a perfect film -- I'll get to that in a tic -- but its imperfections are ten times more compelling than most of the boilerplate crap regularly churned out by the Hollywood machinery. (The movie is available now through On Demand and through online streaming from SundanceNow; it opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on July 8.)

It's hard to summarize the plot of "The Ledge" without giving too much away. And I'd truly hate to do that. Again, so much of what's good about this movie is its unpredictability, and I'd hate to take away the pleasure of seeing its surprises unfold. So I'll do my best to explain without spoiling. Soon after Gavin climbs onto on the ledge, he's confronted by a police officer, Hollis (Terrence Howard), who tries to talk him down. And as Hollis gets Gavin to tell him why he's on the ledge, we see the strange story of the events that led him out there.

It's a story of sex, love, revenge, and religion. A thriller, of sorts. Gavin meets an attractive new neighbor, Shana (Liv Tyler): a sweet, pensive, buttoned-down young woman married to an intense Christian extremist, Joe (Patrick Wilson). Joe's genuine devotion to Shana shows up in the form of paternalism and possessiveness... and his genuine devotion to God shows up in the form of close-mindedness and homophobic bigotry. So Gavin begins a scheme to liberate Shana away from Joe and into his own bed: partly out of lust, partly out of compassion, and partly out of pissy hostility towards Joe and his religion. But what starts as a casual, almost light-hearted game becomes intensely real -- as Gavin and Shana's connection grows stronger, as Shana's dilemma becomes more vivid, and as Joe's insecurity -- about both Shana and his own religious faith -- becomes increasingly volatile.

Gavin is the central character here. And in the pantheon of movie characters, he is both one of the more distinctive and one of the more instantly recognizable that I've seen in a while. As his story unfolded, I kept wondering, "Where is he going with this? What makes him tick? What on earth is he going to do next?" And at the same time, I kept thinking, "Oh, my lack of God -- I know this guy." Passionate, funny, combative, compassionate, way too quick with a snarky barb, equally quick to apologize and admit that he's an asshole, tender-hearted, quick-witted, competitive, impulsive, hard-assed, firmly realistic, fervently idealistic... I know this guy. I see dozens of people like him on atheist forums every day. Heck -- I'm more than a little like him myself. It's something I've said many times: To make characters that an audience can identify with, you don't make them generic and lowest-common-denominator. You make them personal. You make them quirky, complex, mixed-up, unique. You make them human. Humans are what other humans identify with... and writer/ director Chapman has done that in trumps with Gavin.

And he's done it with the rest of the characters in "The Ledge" as well. This is a story of heroism and villainy... but it isn't a story of cartoon heroes and villains. The villain of the piece, Joe, is almost as complex and nuanced as Gavin. The movie is clearly taking Gavin's side, but it goes out of its way to show where Joe's religious extremism comes from and why he clings to it so strongly, and whenever he came on screen, I found myself feeling an uneasy blend of compassion and revulsion. The woman caught in the middle, Shana, has a quiet, compelling strength peering out from her apparent meekness. I sometimes found her to be frustratingly passive -- it would have been nice if the main female character actually made some stuff happen and hadn't primarily been the prize in the game played between two men -- but her few moments of real choice have a thoughtful, carefully-considered gravitas, offering a dramatic contrast to Gavin's impulsive, often blundering willfulness. Hollis, the detective trying to talk Gavin down from the ledge, is a good man having a very, very bad day. The crisis with Gavin coincides with one of the worst personal crises of his own life, and he juggles both with a mix of calm and despair, morality and rage, compassion and bewilderment, a strong man being shaken to his core. In many ways, he's the foundation the film is built on, and I don't think it's an accident that the movie opens and closes on him and his story.

And the scenes between Gavin and his best friend/ roommate, Chris (Christopher Gorham), are among the most authentic of the entire movie. The way the two friends keep touching on the subject of religion, and then stepping back from it because they know they can't talk about it without it causing a rift... it felt like a hand cupping my heart and then twisting, just a little. I know that. I've lived that. It's one of the saddest, hardest things about my friendships with believers: it's this hugely important issue, for me and for them, and there's no way to talk about it seriously without it starting a fight. And so it is with Gavin and Chris. They show their love for each other, not by pushing forward on an intensely personal matter, but by carefully stepping around it. It made me want to cry... more than any of the characters' tragic histories or romantic dramas. (And yes -- the gay best friend/ roommate gets to have a love life, and even a sex life. Praise Jebus.)

There are places, I'll admit, where the dialogue gets a little... not false, exactly, but stilted. In particular, the conversations about religion often play like a bit like a comment thread in an atheist blog. An exchange of abstract ideas, rather than a personal conversation. But on the occasions when it does that, it pulls back into the human realm very quickly. And even though these debates are so absurdly familiar to me I could probably recite them in my sleep -- "The problem of suffering! The argument from locality! The utility defense!" -- I have to acknowledge that this probably won't be true for much of the audience. If you don't spend the bulk of your professional life hanging around the atheist blogosphere, the ideas and arguments in "The Ledge" about religion and atheism may be very new indeed. Unsettling. Emotionally intense. Possibly even mind-blowing.

The producers of "The Ledge" are pitching it as atheism's "Brokeback Mountain." And while I think that's something of an exaggeration, I don't think it's much of one. "The Ledge" is an intensely personal film that explores broad social questions on a private, human scale. It has an unapologetic viewpoint on the issues in question, without shying away from the complexities and sorrows and thorny, unanswerable questions they raise. It makes the marginalized character likeable and heroic, and at the same time lets him be flawed and troubled and often kind of a jerk. The parallels are hard to ignore.

I'm not quite ready to call this the atheist "Brokeback Mountain," though. It's an excellent movie, and it's an entirely unique movie; but it's not the nearly flawless work of genius that "Brokeback Mountain" was. The flaws I've already mentioned aren't the only ones. The movie is more than willing to let Gavin be troubled and morally imperfect -- but when it comes to the fact that Shana is not just his married neighbor but his employee, and that seducing her is sexual harassment, it shrugs and looks the other way. On a related note: I'm really, really, irritated that, in 2011, thoughtful, independent, culturally sensitive filmmakers are still making films that fail the Bechdel Test. (A failure that's even more troubling here, given the main female character's passivity, and her role primarily as the pawn in the two men's game.) And the tragedies in the main characters' pasts seem more than a little forced, a needlessly melodramatic way of gaining the audience's sympathy. (The sad sex work history particularly got up my nose. Can we please knock it off with that particular stereotype, folks?)

So no. I don't know if "The Ledge" is atheism's "Brokeback Mountain." But you know what? I don't know if atheism needs a "Brokeback Mountain." Atheism hasn't yet had a "Children's Hour," or a "Cabaret," or a "Philadelphia." Hell, atheism hasn't even had a "Hairspray." I can certainly think of atheist characters in mainstream American films -- mostly amoral, cynical, depressed, emotionally clueless, emotionally distant, or a combination of the above. But I can think of damn few atheist film characters who were likeable, sympathetic, and even heroic. And I can't think of a single mainstream film that was not only about an atheist, but that was about atheism. I can't think of a single mainstream film before this one that was a serious attempt to convey the reality of atheists' experience.

"The Ledge" isn't atheism's "Brokeback Mountain." "Brokeback Mountain" was the result of decades of activism and consciousness- raising -- about LGBT people in general, and about media depictions of LGBT people in particular. "The Ledge" isn't that. It isn't the culmination of a decades-long cinematic conversation about atheism.

It's the beginning of it.

And that might be even more important.

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