There’s an assortment of reasons to explain why The Ledge is a terrible movie, but one stands out: the huge divide between its proposed intentions and the sleazy manner in which it pursues them. This is a film that sincerely believes—despite layers of pulpy tricks, forced tension, and histrionic conflict—that it’s crafting a thoughtful debate on the conflict between faith and reason. The result is the worst kind of polemic: ugly, empty-headed dreck posing as inquisitive examination.
The Ledge immediately identifies itself with Gavin Nichols (Charlie Hunnam), a cocky ladies’ man bursting with awkward one-liners. He works as a hotel manager, lives in an awesome San Francisco apartment, and wears a constant smirk that begs to be wiped off his face. Eventual vindication comes by way of his new neighbor, Joe (Patrick Wilson), a tightly wound, plastic-faced religious zealot who bullies his wife Shana (Liv Tyler) through guilt and verbal abuse. The confident Gavin, using the pleasures of illegal substances and extramarital flirtation as a lure, eventually draws Shana over to the dark side, setting off an absurd chain of events that culminates with him hovering on the titular ledge, 20 stories from the ground.
There’s nothing wrong with establishing a field of unlikable characters, but The Ledge not only relies on paper-thin stereotypes, it keeps its allegiances clear from the beginning. Gavin may be a jerk, but he’s established as a person with vaguely human characteristics. That’s something Joe, who reads like an evangelist nightmare come to life, completely lacks. Despite the film’s pretense of theological discourse, his religious devotion is presented as a symptom of some core insanity instead of a point of distinction.
The conflict that results, with one side of the debate represented by a vicious maniac fundamentalist, makes this a rigged game. This hardly matters anyway as Chapman’s script whips itself into such a stupid frenzy that it eventually leaves all these questions behind, forsaking the eschatological posturing for the easier platform of cheap thrills and suspense.
Most of the story here is presented via flashback, with Gavin perched precariously on a high rooftop, preparing himself to jump. After he’s urged back from the edge by hostage negotiator Hollis Lucetti (Terrence Howard), we learn that sinister forces are prompting this suicide attempt, expressed through the dreary infidelity and revenge plot that’s teased out over the next 90 minutes. Hollis, who’s having the worst day of his life, is presented as a parallel to Gavin, a man whose situation also dictates a choice between two dire options. Beyond existing as counterpoints, the two have little to do in these scenes, which mostly serve as framing for the winding and ultimately frustrating backstory.
It doesn’t help that Hollis’s narrative is somehow more preposterous than Gavin’s, so packed with hammy acting and spring-loaded that his flashbacks feel implausibly silly, like a big-budget cousin to R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet. This leaves us with a stable of thinly-drawn, unlikable characters, a convoluted story filtered through a distancing device, and a hostage negotiator who keeps ducking out to answer his cellphone, leaving the man he’s supposed to be rescuing sitting alone on the ledge. It’s almost too much to hope that Gavin will jump just to spite him, mercifully terminating this twisting, sanctimonious debacle.