Felony kicks off with an opening that misleadingly primes you for a bit of traditional cops-and-robbers moral relativism. Driving home drunk from an all-night party, police officer Malcolm Toohey (screenwriter Joel Edgerton) accidentally side-swipes a child with his car and desperately covers it up with a story that’s obviously problematic, though Detective Carl Summer (Tom Wilkinson) is just as clearly and pointedly disinterested in implicating a colleague in a crime that could eventually become manslaughter. Interfering with the cover-up, though, is Detective Jim Melick (Jai Courtney), a metaphoric boy scout who believes in the ideals of the system, though his rigorous sense of decorum doesn’t extend to not hitting on the boy’s mother (Sarah Roberts) while she’s standing over her comatose child’s hospitalized body.
One can reasonably assume, then, that Felony is going to be a procedural that examines the cost of honoring the democratic riddles of law enforcement in the tradition of Insomnia (either version), or many of Sidney Lumet’s films—and it’s at this point that Edgerton and director Matthew Saville spring their one legitimate surprise. Obviously the quasi-bad guy, Summer is a dangerous man intelligent enough to rationalize and commit any act he deems necessary for self-preservation, and the filmmakers accept his privileged bullshit at face value. In the film’s best and retrospectively most troubling moment, Summer utters a line that’s a real masterpiece of fascism disguised as empathetic ambiguity: “Prison is for pricks that don’t have their punishment here.” Summer’s pointing a finger to his head, of course.
Felony reveals itself to be a profoundly cynical movie posing as a work of idealism, and it’s all the more insidious because it’s otherwise so bland and forgettable (the only actor who registers is the characteristically terrific Wilkinson). A film like Dirty Harry can be (unreasonably) accused of fascism, but there’s no shrugging off that despairing and nightmarishly violent film. But Felony grows so preordained in its cornball conclusion that it encourages you to see a child’s life as just another heap of paperwork that’s impeding on the right of cops to return to their inherently more cinematic business. In Edgerton and Saville’s view, Toohey should be able to get away with his crime because he’ll be able to stop other crimes and, hey, he’s bummed out enough about it as it is anyway. The theoretical hero, Melick is conveniently, and absurdly, sullied as a hypocrite and a sleaze who doesn’t understand the day-to-day realities of police work as actually practiced, and so he’s served up as a scapegoat for the film’s idea of justice as a communal back-patting society of comfy old white men. This is the kind of strikingly reprehensible film that falls back on that socially diseased old saw that justifies anything in the name of “officers doing their duty,” with no regard to the fact that the officers seem to be breaking more laws than the lawbreakers.