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Review: Moral ambiguity fuels low-key intensity of police drama ‘Felony’

Joel Edgerton plays Malcolm Toohey, a compromised detective in "Felony."
Joel Edgerton plays Malcolm Toohey, a compromised detective in “Felony.”
(Gravitas Ventures)
Los Angeles Times Film Critic

Starring a trio of top male actors in splendid roles, the intricate, intimate “Felony” is a police story crossed with a perceptive psychological drama. Three very different Sydney, Australia, detectives, each one determined to do the right thing, have to decide how to define justice in one specific case and have to choose what lines can be crossed and what price can be paid in order to achieve it.

These kinds of moral decisions always make for involving films, especially when the key performers are as good as Tom Wilkinson, Joel Edgerton and Jai Courtney. Working from a screenplay by Edgerton, rising Australian director Matthew Saville has expertly constructed a low-key, realistic drama in which the malleability of morality in an increasingly murky situation takes center stage.

Edgerton, a veteran of the stylistically similar “Animal Kingdom” and soon-to-be Pharaoh in Ridley Scott’s forthcoming “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” has written himself into this film’s pivotal role.

That would be 35-year-old detective Malcolm Toohey, married to Julie (a convincing Melissa George), the father of two young sons and introduced as one of the leaders of a large-scale police drug raid that opens the picture.

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That operation reveals Malcolm to be both heroic and vulnerable, an excellent officer who wants to avoid shooting a suspect unless absolutely necessary but who also has a temper that can flare into violence.

Sooner rather than later, this best day in Malcolm’s life turns into his worst nightmare. Driving home in the early morning after having too many celebratory drinks with his mates, Malcolm allows his car to drift to the side, and he clips a young newspaper delivery boy. It’s a small blow, but it’s enough to knock the boy off his bike and leave him unconscious on the pavement.

Malcolm calls for an ambulance, but inebriated confusion combined with instinctive self-protection leads him to a crucial omission: He tells no one that the boy he claims to have found was on the ground because he hit him.

Intercut with Malcolm’s dilemma is the introduction of 55-year-old Detective Sgt. Carl Summer, masterfully played by the twice-Oscar nominated Wilkinson. A wily veteran who’s been around the block and knows all the tricks, Carl shows up on the scene and immediately sizes up the situation.

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Carl pulls Malcolm aside for an extended private conversation that we can’t hear. More to the point, Carl’s new partner can’t hear the talk either.

That would be 26-year-old rookie Jim Melic (Courtney), who clearly does not relish being left on the outside. Partly out of pique, partly because he is gradually revealed to be something of a zealous moralist, Jim suspects that Malcolm is not telling the whole story, a suspicion that grows after the police accept the detective’s story at face value and declare the case closed.

In the minds of these three men, however, this situation is anything but finished, making it difficult for them to concentrate on their casework, including the child molestation Carl and Jim are investigating. This becomes increasing so for Jim as he gets into the habit of visiting the injured boy’s hospital room so he can spend time with the youngster’s attractive mother (Sarah Roberts).

What happened on that rain-slicked street eats at everyone, but it does so for different reasons for each person involved, and because Edgerton knows how to write for actors, each character’s position is portrayed with particular clarity.

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As a confident veteran with a great sense of who he is, Wilkinson’s Carl has some of “Felony’s” most bravura speeches, but Edgerton, especially good at playing tortured souls, is memorable as a man who feels both guilty about what he has done and trapped by his previous actions.

This intense drama plays out over three days, but it feels like a lifetime because of the way the tension rises. Some melodrama is involved, but overall “Felony” plays more than fair with the varying points of view as three men who would be on the same side in an ideal world agonize about what should be done in the real one.

Follow me on Twitter: @KennethTuran

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‘Felony’

No MPAA rating

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Noho 7, North Hollywood

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