Malcolm Toohey is a textbook example of a good cop, as we see in the opening of “Felony,” written by and starring Joel Edgerton. Toohey is the kind of police officer that doesn’t hesitate to charge into a dangerous situation, and by the end of the early moments of the film, his actions find him taking two shots to his bulletproof vest protected chest, all in the name of bringing down a bit player in a much bigger criminal ring. It’s the kind of bravery that has earned him the respect of his colleagues. Meanwhile, on the homefront, with a beautiful wife and two young kids, things couldn’t look better. But one bad decision, followed by a heat-of-the-moment lie, is all it takes for Malcolm’s life to potentially unravel around him. What begins with so much promise in “Felony” is undone by a story that prefers sensationalist melodrama over tackling the much more interesting ethical dilemmas it brings up for its characters.
Following the aforementioned bust, Malcolm gets behind the wheel after a night of celebratory drinks and bobs and weaves his way home. He manages a bit of luck when a random police stop waves him through—thanks to the Blue Code Of Silence (or the Aussie equivalent)—but he’ll have to survive his next incident all on his own. On an empty stretch of road, mere blocks away from home, Malcolm accidentally sideswipes a young boy on his bike, out early for his newspaper delivery. Macolm alerts the authorities, but already sensing how bad this could be for him, he omits his involvement when talking with the emergency operator, and when the cops arrive on the scene, he cooks up a story about seeing another car zoom out of sight when he reached the boy on the road. But as the boy’s condition deteriorates in the hospital, guilt begins to eat away at Malcolm.
But his own self-doubt is the least of his problems. Senior officer Carl Summer (a fantastically corroded Tom Wilkinson)—no stranger to bending the rules to get results—helped Malcolm cover his tracks at the crime scene and urges him to keep his mouth shut for the greater good. Is he better off by telling the truth and staining the public perception of the police department? What good is he to the pursuit of justice, by risking his badge? However, though Carl’s younger, self-righteous, by-the-books partner Jim Melic (a solid Jai Courtney) is kept in the dark about Malcolm’s false statement at the crime scene, he’s doing his own investigation on the sly, suspecting something is off. And at least at first, “Felony” seems like it’s aiming to be a potboiler driven by ideas instead of action, one that will see the net slowly close around Malcolm as he tries to navigate tricky ethical waters, balancing his own need to relieve the weight of the consequences on his shoulders, against the repercussions that could fan out to this family and colleagues if he speaks up.
Again, it’s a premise ripe with possibility, but Edgerton doesn’t seem to know where to take it, or he’s uninterested in continuing down that path. A disastrous third act simply obliterates whatever tentative goodwill and tension “Felony” had been building up to by that point by severely undermining the integrity of the characters, introducing left-field plot twists and completely inexplicable motivations, leading to a head-scratcher of a climax. In short order, Jim makes a move that one supposes is meant to illustrate the corruptibility of even the most hard-nosed, but it never feels organic to anything we’ve seen from him in the story. Meanwhile, Wilkinson’s Carl—easily the most fascinating character in the film—randomly becomes excessively unhinged and is then conveniently sidelined by the story in one of the screenplay’s more WTF developments, all while Malcolm is never given a real chance to truly consider the options he has, all of which leave him with a no-win situation. In short, the procedural and thematic elements get overtaken by decisions that heighten the drama, rendering impotent any ideas the film presents.
Director Matthew Saville, who has earned most of his credits via television work, does what he can on what was clearly a modest budget, but it’s the script that ultimately lets him down. Aside from the aforementioned disappointment of where the storyline eventually goes, there are several plot threads introduced and left hanging, including separate investigations that Carl and Malcolm are working on that feel like they were condensed or chopped down from a longer version of the movie, or a different draft of the script. All of this assists “Felony” in missing the mark of its bigger cinematic ambitions, often feeling instead like a one-off TV movie, particularly as each machination of plot gets more contrived and dishonest.
“Felony” isn’t a federal case of a bad film, but it’s certainly a serious misdemeanor, one whose crime is running away from the challenge the story sets up, to settle on something cheap and conventional. It’s a movie that could have used some of the courage it invests in Malcolm himself. [D+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.