A traffic accident involving a young boy spins a web of lies, suspicion and cover-ups around three policemen in “Felony,” a tension-packed drama from Aussie helmer Matthew Saville. The script, written by lead actor Joel Edgerton, teems with moral conundrums, as straight-arrow righteousness, self-serving pragmatism and plain, old-fashioned guilt duke it out amid drug busts and family disintegration. Thanks to Saville’s tightly controlled direction and a superlative cast, the mere exchange of glances builds as much suspense as the kinetic action sequence that opens the pic. This stylish psychological thriller could gather momentum after its projected late-summer Australian and Stateside release.
The camera follows policeman Mal Toohey (Edgerton) with handheld immediacy as he chases an escaping suspect during a raid on a drug lab; he gets a bullet lodged in his protective vest and hero status for his trouble. Driving home late at night after partaking of a few too many toasts in his honor, he accidently clips a boy on a bike with his rear-view mirror. Panicked, he phones for an ambulance, but denies all involvement in the incident.
Meanwhile, uptight, by-the-book newbie Jim (Jai Courtney) and his superior, Carl (Tom Wilkinson), who have been “stirring the pot” on a pedophile case, arrive on the scene. Recognizing Mal, Carl takes over, sending Jim off to secure the perimeter while he privately questions Mal and sends him home, arousing Jim’s suspicions. As days pass, the boy remains in a coma and Mal’s guilt increasingly clamors for confession. Jim, his desire to solve the case further fueled by his attraction to the boy’s young mother (Sarah Roberts), voices his doubts more aggressively to Carl. And Carl, implicated in the cover-up, grows increasingly desperate in clandestine meetings with both men.
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“Felony” sometimes threatens to turn too neatly symmetrical: At one point, Jim is placed in a position roughly analogous to Mal’s. But the film’s strength lies in its avoidance of simple mirror-image inversions. Mal has a boy not far in age from the one who lies in a coma, but Carl had one, too, a son who was killed by a driver, and these similarities and differences bounce off each other in their layered interactions.
When Mal finally confesses his guilt to his wife (Melissa George), who has felt shut out by his silence, the truth further alienates them rather than bringing them closer together. In this relativistic universe, any choice becomes problematic and any resolution superficial, the film’s ending proposing a particularly hollow return to normalcy.
Saville sets in motion a background hum of ongoing cases, arrests, court appearances and family celebrations, while his trio of cops find themselves caught up in their own more intense, anxiety-fraught drama. Indeed, the relative routineness of the surrounding activity somewhat lessens the pic’s kinetic energy compared with, say, Derek Cianfrance’s “The Place Beyond the Pines,” where private and public conflicts collide more spectacularly. Yet in its own quiet way, “Felony” resonates.
Mark Wareham’s needle-sharp lensing, Geoff Hitchins’ crisp cutting and Bryony Mark’s driving score amp up the angst.