When respected Western Sydney copper Mal Toohey (Joel Edgerton), half-cut after a night of celebrating a successful drug bust, strikes a young boy on a bicycle with his wing mirror, he sets into motion a series of events which call into question his commitment to duty and justice, and which reverberate throughout the police establishment to disastrous effect. If this premise, ready-made for a cut-and-paste procedural thriller, seems uninspiring, it is thanks to Felony’s cunning direction, powerful lead performance, and confronting commentary on ethics and institutional corruption that it is still such a compelling film. Despite some flawed characterisation and less than interesting subplots, the film – a co-production of the exciting Aussie film collective Blue-Tongue Films – successfully channels homegrown urban disillusionment into a narrative which deals with abiding film tropes in a fresh and genuine way.
Felony’s early scenes are, unusually, amongst its best. Toohey storms into a breeze-block warehouse full of packing crates and cracked glass, bellowing both orders to his officers and profanity to his targets, and is grazed by a bullet to the abdomen in the process, in a sequence shot with such immediacy that it evokes the Dardenne brothers. Blundering out of the pub after a few drinks with his colleagues that evening, Toohey is slyly given a password to avoid breath tests on his drive home. Sure enough, he’s pulled over, mutters the code word to the far junior officer at his car window, and is gruffly waved on. The best moments in Felony are epitomised by this attitude: from bending the rules to outright corruption, potentially sensationalistic material is portrayed matter-of-factly, both rendering it more confronting and forcing its audience into complicity. Edgerton’s performance, measured neatly to complement his own script, is a close-to-the-bone impersonation of the kind of solid, working-class-bloke-done-good that would find himself in Mal Toohey’s position; even my foreign ears can detect his broadened accent and colloquial emphasis.1 When the inevitable accident happens, and Toohey, in a moment of madness, claims to the dispatcher that his accident was another driver’s hit and run, the subtlety with which the film has played the inanity of the police boys’ club against their vital and physical societal role makes it hard to feel revulsion toward him.
Catalysing a tricky plot with this level of intelligence makes the remainder of Felony naturally enjoyable. The senior-junior detective partnership of Carl Summer and Jim Melic (veteran Tom Wilkinson and rising star Jai Courtney), coincidentally next on the scene of their mate Toohey’s crime, are split, as the older man covers up the potential scandal without his partner’s knowledge. “Time and the world swallow events,” he tells Mal: why not let it swallow this one? In a moving scene, Toohey’s hitherto gentle and unassuming wife Julie (Melissa George) also agrees that he should not come clean, although she is obviously trying to convince herself as much as her husband. Melic, meanwhile, is drawn as an outsider; “from Mosman,” as Toohey, who is clearly not, says so pointedly. He would not see the world swallow this event – police officer or not, a crime has been committed, and he thinks he knows by whom. As the three men are drawn closer into one another’s lies, they become more visibly dissolute, and each of them finds their basic moral providence called into question. The great strength of Felony is its capacity to suggest that maybe a man like Mal Toohey, who has so much at stake, and who does so much good for society, may be entitled to greater mistakes than somebody else, while remaining staunchly opposed to the blatant corruption which allows those mistakes to be concealed.
It’s a shame, then, that Felony’s weakest points come when trying to deal with Summer and Melic’s complicity in the crime. While the notion that Wilkinson’s character would be resistant to anything threatening to the force is believable enough, his descent into heavy drinking and, inexplicably, stained polo shirts, is somewhat cartoonish. By the climax of the film, Summer looks more like Barry Humphries’ vaguely threatening brother than an embittered, anguished old man. Similarly, the subplot in which Melic falls for Toohey’s victim’s mother is seriously contrived – while Sarah Roberts’ performance as Ankhila is commendable, she is several years too young for the role, looking as though she would be more at home on Ramsay Street than on the wrong side of Parramatta Road. Furthermore, Courtney plays Melic with a straightforwardness that makes the notion that he has sex on his mind while investigating Toohey seem totally incongruous.
However, a few clumsy scenes do not a bad film make. It is a mark of director Matthew Saville’s talent for subtlety that each of the film’s two pivotal acts of violence – the second is a major climax – appears directly on-screen, but in such a way that it is impossible to be sure exactly what has happened. Similarly, it is to Edgerton’s credit as a screenwriter that the narrative payoff – set up so clearly from the beginning as a binaristic scenario where Toohey will either fess up or not – is concluded in a manner that remains both redemptive and just. Neither one-eyed establishmentarians nor anti-authority agitators will find the film wholly sympathetic to their ideas: Felony balances its ethics precariously, and makes an honest effort to evaluate multiple viewpoints, rare and maligned qualities in too much of Australian popular discourse. As such, it stands out amongst average police drama fare as a smart verbalisation of important issues that still remains complex and gripping.
Around the Staff