THE EDGE: A CRITICAL ANALYSIS
Two Guys in the woods. In a
tent. Big bear comes up, he's
gonna eat 'em. One guy reaches
in his pack, starts putting
on his running shoes. The other
guy: "you idiot, you can't
run faster than a bear..."
Guy says 'I don't have to run
faster than the bear, I just
have to run faster than you..."
ANGLE: INT. THE PLANE
You know why that's particularly
funny...? (PAUSE) The man would
not be in the woods with his
running shoes. (PAUSE) He wouldn't
take them in the woods. So the
joke indicates hostility on
the part of the man who brought
the shoes. (PAUSE) It indicates,
in effect, that he brought the
other man into the woods to
I can do no better explaining
the plot of the movie The Edge
than this early exchange between
Bob Green, a superficial fashion
photographer, and Charles Morse,
a detached billionaire. In David
Mamet's screenplay they get stuck
in the woods together, and Green
wants to kill Morse for reasons
you'll soon find out. Possibly
the most amazing thing about this
fun piece of writing is that it
didn't even make it into the movie.
In The Edge, Mamet and Lee Tamahori,
the film's director use naturalistic,
mostly forgettable dialogue and
shape it into a a sparse, intelligent
movie which transcends the bounds
of the run-of-the-mill action
I THINK THEREFORE I AM
A lot of reviewers have been calling
The Edge a thinking-man's action
film, because Anthony Hopkins'
character Charles Morse dispenses
lore about the great outdoors.
But I think that a lot of these
reviewers are missing the point.
Not that Morse isn't an
intelligent character or that
intelligent people wouldn't enjoy
this movie, but Mamet, greatly
aided by Tamahori, makes a point:
that for all of Morse's planning,
scheming and pontificating, almost
every piece of knowledge and plan-of-attack
that Morse asserts ends up failing.
By carefully frustrating viewer's
expectations of the genre,
Mamet defines his bookworm Billionaire,
ultimately, as a man of action,
and his nemesis Bob Green, as
a character who's specific flaw
With naturalistic dialogue that
functions as action (even when
is revealed) Mamet is able to
clarify his theme of action versus
inaction. And through the use
of a tag-line, one simple sentence,
and an accompanying image system,
his thriller transcends its physical
jeopardy into a metaphysical arena.
For all of the information that
Morse has learned from his book,
Lost in the Wilds (The filmmakers
wisely choose to let the book
get lost when the plane crashes
unlike the draft I read where
they have it with them the entire
time.), the filmmakers carefully
contrive such that practically
not one piece of that information
actually helps them
accomplish any of their goals.
The compass (trying to magnetize
aluminum in the first place, tsk,
tsk) leads them right back to
where they started. They don't
catch a fish. The "fire from
ice" trick isn't used. The
swinging bear trap doesn't work
very well. After reading the first-aid
kit and attending to Green, Morse
can't save his life.
Instead of knowledge assisting
the characters in their survival,
Mamet uses it differently. In
this scene, Green, after seeing
a rescue plane fly away, drops
to the ground, frustrated, giving
Did you know you can make Fire
GREEN SHAKES HIS HEAD, DEJECTED,
MEANING "NOT NOW..."
You can make fire from ice.
Hello? I'm talking to
you... Do you know how that
would be done?
(PAUSE) Robert? (PAUSE) Robert.
Can you think?
You Yankees. Isn't it...? Isn't
Fire from Ice, can you think
Sit up there... drinks and Golf.
Screwing the Maid
(PAUSE) But get you in an emergency....
N'you bloom. You make me sick.
You make me sick,
d'you know that...?
I'm sure that I do.
You make me sick. What the hell
puts you off...
Jews and Public Speaking, I'd
Fire from ice. Can you think
how? Can you think how?
I don't care how, Charles.
Do you want to die?2
Morse continues to throw the
question at Green until he eventually
explains to Green how to make
fire from ice.
Even if this scene were in the
hands of a novice screenwriter,
and he/she had to solve the problem
of how to reveal to the audience
that Morse knows how to make fire,
this scene would be a strong way
to dramatize the exposition. The
question he asks Green
however, is not a question; it's
antagonism--an aggressive attempt
to push him to think clearly so
he can help both of them survive.
Although Morse's solution to
how to make fire from ice is interesting,
it is not the point of the scene.
At the end of the scene Morse
even says, "But I doubt we'll
be reduced... we still have the
matches." It's not even exposition,
because it is not a set up where
30 pages later you see them saving
themselves by making a fire with
this knowledge. In general, any
time a movie has a character tell
us exactly how a plan is going
to go and then the plan goes exactly
that way (or at least with no
additional irony), the movie's
not going to work. But the dialogue
reveals Morse as a man who is
very strong-willed and determined
and Green as a man who ironically,
quite unironically, does want
to die. This is a dramatic scene
about a person imploring another
person to think, to do, to act,
RHETORIC AS ACTION
Charles Deemer wrote in Creative
(storytelling) itself becomes
a kind of action, as well as contributing
to character development and often
to scene tension."3 Deemer
was discussing Tarantino's work,
but it's equally applicable to
Mamet's. When Mamet has a character
tell a story, impart knowledge
or tell a joke, he is careful
to not just give information out
for its own sake. It must not
stall the script or stop the dramatic
momentum. You'll find that when
it's done right, rhetoric, as
in the "foot massage"
argument and Samuel Jackson's
repeated religious diatribes in
Pulp Fiction, has as many of these
characteristics as possible:
Very funny or intrinsically
Creating tension for the audience
or conflict between characters
Foreshadowing or setup or pay
off If you can apply the same
criteria to long monologues or
joke/storytelling in your script,
it can help your writing. Tarantino's
diatribes (as an actor) in, say,
Destiny Turns on the Radio and
Desperado don't work as well as
they do in his own scripts, because
they aren't functioning dramatically
on several levels at once.
The "Fire from ice"
scene above has almost all of
these characteristics. Mamet specifically
foils the last characteristic,
because we never see them actually
rely on the information as a lesser
writer might do.
The "Two guys in the woods"
story at the beginning of this
article is a textbook example
of how Mamet creatively integrates
rhetoric/dialogue as action. Not
only does it foreshadow the central
issue of the movie, it also reveals
character: how analytical and
perceptive Morse is, and how he
is good at reading other people's
covert hostility. It's also an
interesting insight into the nature
of comedy, which Freud says, always
has a hostile intention.4 The
story is also funny, and Morse's
response is revealing.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE
When Green is on his death-bed,
he says to Morse:
... Hey. I'm dying, and I never
did a goddamn thing.5
This might seem like a throwaway
line, but it actually joins in
with several other of Morse's
lines like "Do you want to
die?", "You want to
die out here," and "Should
we just lay down and die?"
to show that Green does want to
die, that he is a person unable
to take action. This is a subtle
and elaborate theme which is set
up several different ways in the
dialogue, but also in the plotting.
Green's failure to bury the bloodied
cloth leads to the death of Stephen.
Green's failure to put back the
note on the door puts them in
more danger. He fails to keep
the fire going. He can't find
his own woman. He doesn't even
want to add three hours to determine
the time in New York when in Los
An additional line of dialogue
that is not in the draft of the
script I read but which is in
the movie really helps to clarify
this theme. Morse knows that Green
is gravely injured and he tells
him not to die, and Green responds
"Don't tell me what to do."
These are Green's last words before
he dies. Passive aggressive. Appropriate.
He dies simply because he won't
do anythingeven live.
Why is Morse the hero? And what
is it about him that makes him
dramatically able to save himself
from the PHYSICAL danger? At one
point Morse says to Green:
I'm not dense Robert, I just
have no imagination.6
This is a great line, because
most of the audience thinks that
it is said with irony, but the
great irony is that it's not ironic.
For all of Morse's information
and ideas, the reason they are
still alive is because he's a
man of action, a person bold enough,
even under the worst conditions,
to act to try to change his predicament.
Let's look at the second biggest
decision Morse makes. In this
scene, the bear has tracked them
down again, and they know he is
...he's a mankiller. He's been
stalking us from the first.
He's toying with us.
...what are we going to do?
...when they get the scent of
GREEN (STANDS AND GRABS MORSE)
What are we going to do....?
MORSE THROWS HIM OFF
What are we going to do?
What do I have a plan? Am I
supposed to have a plan...?
Morse moves to a piece of the
encircling fire, which has burnt
down, he starts to build it up.
He takes the note "Gone Bear
Hunting, Jack Hawk" from
GREEN (PEERING OUT PAST THE
What are we going to do Charles...?
MORSE PAUSES. HE TURNS OVER
JACK HAWK'S NOTE, AND WE SEE
THE 19TH CENTURY ADVERTISEMENT
"STRIKE FAST" MATCHES,
THE CAMPER'S FRIEND. AND THE
DRAWING OF THE INDIAN SPEARING
MORSE AND GREEN, MORSE LIGHTS
... What are we going to do?
We're going to kill the bear?7
The five consecutive occurrences
of "What are we going to
do?" clarify that Green is
somebody unable to do anything
and it is Morse who will have
to come up with the decision.
When it all comes down to it,
the answer to "What do you
do to stop a bear who is chasing
you when you have no other way
to stop it from killing you?"
try to kill it: two men and their
What do we use for bait?
...we 'lure' him - you know,
Masai boys, in Africa. Eleven
years old. They kill lion with
Uh huh. (Pause) ... how do we
MORSE WITHDRAWS THE SPEARPOINT
FROM THE FIRE, LOOKS AT IT,
HE NODS AND REPLACES THE SPEARPOINT,
REVOLVING IT IN THE FIRE.
... and what One can do, another
(Green doubts their ability to
kill the bear. In the script,
Morse shows Green a picture in
the book of how it will be done,
but this is excised from the film.)
You can't kill the bear, Charles.
He's...he's... he's (shakes
his head) Been ahead of us,
the whole, he's been playing
with us, he can read our minds,
What one can do, another can
do. You weakling. Do you want
to die out here...? (PAUSE)
DO you? (PAUSE) You coward.
(PAUSE) Do you hear me? (PAUSE)
"I'm going to kill the
bear." Say it...
Say it... "I'm going to
kill the bear." Say it:
I'm going to kill'im.
And tomorrow I'm going to kill
This naturalistic, repetitive
emotional dialogue works on more
than one level. It clarifies the
theme about doing and being as
the two characters reveal their
true selves. The matchbox gives
him the idea, but he has to think
to elaborate on how to do it.
And the information Morse knows
about the Masai isn't used to
solve the problem. He uses the
Masai stories to chide and inspire,
but the resolution comes from
the characters and more specifically
Above, I asked the question what
makes Morse the hero and why is
he able to save himself. We dealt
with how he saves himself from
physical jeopardy, but how does
he save himself spiritually? After
they have killed the bear:
MORSE (resuming a conversation)
...and so I said, and so I said,
"if this is me life, then
this is my life... but you can
change your life. (Pause) Is
What follows is not in the script,
but in the movie:
Why wouldn't it be true?
Because I never knew anyone
who did actually change their
life. (PAUSE) I'll tell you
what. I'm going to start my
Yeah. (PAUSE) You'll be the
Morse makes the decision to change.
After Green's failed attempt to
kill him, Morse, even after learning
that Green has slept with his
wide, makes the most important
decision in the film and in his
life: he decides to forgive Green
and try to save him. The movie
becomes bigger than just the outdoorsits
physical environment. It gives
us hope that people can rise up
to a higher level. Mamet uses
small snippets of dialogue, an
image system and a tag-line to
help to foreshadow and strengthen
Image system is the term Robert
McKee uses to explain a series
of recurring images or ideas which
help to clarify a theme or mood.10
Some may just call it a motif.
The most interesting image system
in the movie wasn't even in the
script. The opening shot of the
film (which is not alluded to
in the script) makes the back
of a plane and its wings look
like a winged-totem or an angel.
There are bookending shots of
a totem (which Morse notices and
points out) at the lodge when
the plane and helicopter land,
and there is even a match-dissolve
from Morse's face to the totem.
Morse's wife, laying back, with
her arms folded behind her head
like wings, ironically looking
like an angel, calls her husband
an angel and continues, "...everything
but the wings." Later, in
persuading him to go on the trip,
she tells him that it will be
good to "get some air under
A tag-line also works with this
image system to show how Morse
transcends the ground and rises
to a new height. John Truby defines
a tag-line as a line of dialogue
that is repeated throughout a
screenplay, but has a different
meaning each time.
The tag-line, "Never feel
sorry for a man who owns a plane"
which was not in the draft I read,
is repeated twice and meshes well
with the other associations of
visual and aural images of planes,
angels, Morse, totems and wings.
The first time it is used, the
line is a jaded remark, but later
it raises questions about whether
or not material things alone,
without love, can make a person
happy. These are nonobtrusive,
subtle ways where the dialogue,
working in conjunction with an
image system, helps clarify a
theme and the purpose of the character's
TAKING OUT ALL THE GOOD LINES
In the preface of his On
Directing Film (an eqally
good book for screenwriters),
Mamet quotes Hemingway: "Write
the story, take out all the good
lines and see if it still works."11
In Mamet's writing, we see the
same dramatic clarity. In The
Edge, a character may be telling
a story or imparting knowledge
to the audience, but it is
always in service to the very
basic question: what does the
character want. We may learn that
Masai boys are good hunters, and
that we can make fire from ice,
and that bringing your sneakers
in the woods indicates hostility.
But these interesting and sometimes
entertaining tidbits do nothing
if they are not in the context
of a flesh-and-blood character
and his/her grappling with desires
1. David Mamet, The Edge (January,
1996), p. 6.
2. Ibid., pp. 91-2.
3. Charles Deemer, "A Tarantino
Script" in Creative
Screenwriting (Vol. 3, No.
4), p. 63.
4. Mamet has made it clear several
times that Freud and psychoanalysis
have a great deal of influence
on his work. He loves to have
characters use double-entendres
and freudian-slips which belie
something more about themselves.
5. David Mamet, The Edge (January,
1996), p. 130
6. Ibid, p. 92
7. Ibid., pp. 99-100.
8. Ibid., pp. 101-104.
9. Ibid., p. 111.
10. A few examples would be flawed
eyes in Chinatown, water in Diabolique,
hats in Miller's Crossing, and
cigarettes in too many movies.
11. David Mamet, On
Directing Film, Penguin Books,
1991, p. xiv.
Screenwriting (Vol. 5, #5,