We first meet Detective Tommy Craven greeting his daughter at Boston station. He’s clearly a loving but overprotective father, a man subtly ill at ease with the modern world. His daughter chides him for ‘always’ being early, and on the way home answers his probing questions by suggesting he needs a relationship: he wears a ring yet we never discover what happened to his wife. He demurs, saying she’s ‘my girl’. The pair return home where she is violently sick and, cast in the role of father, he tries to rush her to hospital…only for her to be shot and killed the moment they set foot out of the house, thus setting in motion the mystery which drives the film.
It would be easy to dismiss this piece, all the more so given the critical acclaim received by the BBC television drama on which it was based. In fact, most critics have done just that, often making reference to the quality of the original in the process. However, such repudiations ironically foreground, though fail to acknowledge, what’s most interesting about the film. A large part of what makes it such a tempting target for critical ire is its casual regurgitation of overly familiar Hollywood clichés: the last honest man, the hardboiled and incorruptible detective, a father struggling on behalf of his children.
We’ve seen this story a million times before. Or have we? The obvious points of reference are films like Taken and television programs like 24. Yet unlike Bryan Mills or Jack Bauer, who never stumble or display weakness, Tommy Craven struggles from the point of his daughter’s death; we see that behind the icy exterior of a man who knows what do and how to do it there is weakness and doubt. Throughout the film he imagines conversations with his daughter and we see his resolve falter on more than one occasion. We also see him throw up through fear and grief, as a visceral representation of his weakness (vomit plays a strangely prominent role in the film).
In its final scene he stumbles, as if drunk, through the house of the malevolent CEO and what might have once been justice is now simply revenge. Despite being a military veteran and a police detective of 30 years with, we learn earlier in the film, an impeccable record (thus he is an unblemished upholder of the Law) he’s been pushed too far and seen too much to think that justice can be done. He doesn’t aim to bring the perpetrators to justice but simply to end them so he can die knowing he has done something.
He says to the CEO before he makes the kill shot, ‘deep down you know you deserve this’: a man who has dedicated his life to the law, in both the political and psychoanalytical sense of the term, ultimately finds himself appealing to the private conscience of his enemy as he extra-judicially executes him.
In Ransom, a similar film of the mid 90s, the multimillionaire father (also played by Mel Gibson) was reunited with his son after ultimately killing the corrupt cop who’d kidnapped him and demanded a ransom. Killing was involved, as a troubled father redeemed himself through action facilitated by sheer resolve and unwavering integrity. However, this killing was defensive and against a corrupt cop, thus recovering the law rather than undermining it. Most of all it led to his reconciliation with his son. His previously neglectful parenting was forgotten as his performative enaction of the role of father, which had previously eluded him, washed away all sins.
In contrast, Tommy Craven’s killing is offensive, involving a pre-emptive assault on the CEO’s house, against a man whose activities were sanctioned at the top levels of the federal government, Ultimately, the reconciliation it facilitates is fantasistic and confined to the afterlife. The film ends with his dead daughter embracing him and leading his spirit out of the hospital. The only point in which we see him as the protective father occurs at the start of the film (as he attempts to rush his sick daughter to hospital) and it quickly ends with her being blown apart with a shotgun.
For all its cinematic clichés, the Edge of Darkness represents something new and, well, dark. While once the redemption of the father played itself out through conservative fables of resolve, integrity and justice, now it ends in three murders and no redemption nor justice.
In the 1990s stories such as this worked to sustain the integrity of American masculinity in social conditions which seemed to perpetually undercut and disorientate it: the inadequate father eventually found redemption through rediscovering those qualities (strength, bravery, courage) which society had obscured. Now however those qualities don’t facilitate redemption; only revenge. They don’t fix what is broken. They simply allow one ultimate and final act: not to set things right, not for justice but simply because acting is better than doing nothing.
A narrative form which once rested on the sublimation of masculine rage through the reestablishment of the law has transmuted into a form which permits no sublimation. Now there is just rage and the expression which can be found for it prior to death.