Feature Documentary Reviews

The Edge of Chaos (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Sam Uhlemann

Writer: Sam Uhlemann

Cast: Aoibhinn McGinnity, Seán Mahon, Muireann Ryan, Muireann D’Arcy, Graeme Coughlan, Des Carney, Rebecca Flynn

Running time:  1hr 27mins

Is there a relationship between an addiction and the pathology of a dysfunctional family? The question is central to Sam Uhlemann’s debut feature film The Edge of Chaos and the filmmaker’s answer is very much in the affirmative. The putative addiction that Uhlemann portrays is to alcohol – the big thirst – the existential need for a hit of affected yeast to get through a day in the life.

The movie’s dysfunctional family is one ruled over by a manipulative, controlling patriarch and it has dark secrets which Uhlemann skilfully reveals – the layers of the onion are peeled open by an uneven but often compelling screenplay. The Edge of Chaos is a vivid and powerful statement by a first-time director but one I found to be, in a number of ways, morally dubious.

We are in provincial Ireland – an early scene, helpfully, has a local newspaper, with the banner Wicklow Echo, lying on a table. Uhlemann sets the scene with a some well shot but obvious signposting as we are introduced to the Keenan family.

We see the eldest daughter, Carrie (a superb performance from Aoibhinn McGinnity) woken up in a hotel room by the insect vibration of her mobile phone – the voice tells us we are ante meridiem – Carrie pours herself a big slug of vodka. Drinking in the morning – message to audience – problem drinker.

We move on to an awards ceremony for a successful businessman turned politician, Derek, the family patriarch played by Sean Mahon. In a somewhat stilted scene, we meet his PR director, Lucy (Muireann D’Arcy) and discover she is his adopted child – message – complicated family dynamic.

We meet Paul (Graeme Coughlan), the son, making a delivery of vegetables for which the restaurant owner haggles him down in price – take it or leave it – message – a business failure in comparison to his successful father.

Carrie arrives at her well-appointed residence (the Keenans have money) to find her husband Billy (Des Carney) is about to leave her because of her drinking – message – worse than we thought – an alcoholic.

Despite the somewhat clunky start, Uhlemann proceeds to steer the narrative efficiently and engagingly – the Keenans interest the viewer – and quickly gets to the nub of the story. Carrie is portrayed as a dynamic businessperson who has had charge of the family business while the father has been concentrating on politics. For reasons that we discover later – Carrie has come to vehemently resent her father and wants sole control of the business. (The business is never specified but your reviewer got a hunch it would be property development) Carrie has compromising evidence of corrupt political deals made by her father and has leaked some information to the local newspaper – if Derek does not hand over the business – Carrie will divulge all and ruin his political career.

Derek comes up with a Machiavellian wheeze – he calls a conference at the family home which he tricks Carrie into attending – purportedly to confront Carrie as to her alcohol addiction and to force her into a treatment programme but in reality, to somehow stop her carrying out her threat. For your reviewer, it was not entirely clear why Derek believed this course of action would prevent Carrie from leaking but Uhlemann’s screenplay was so gloriously persuasive I went with the flow.   

The ensuing family conflagration sees Carrie fight her corner and mercilessly itemise the long list of lies that have been told to her and her siblings. We finally meet the mother – Mimi (Muireann Ryan). Both father and mother appear culpable of self-serving deceit whilst maintaining that all their actions have been in the interests of the family. The scene makes for tremendously powerful cinema – for your reviewer it was right up there with and reminiscent of Thomas Vinterberg’s, Festen, the first and, possibly finest of the Dogme films – it is that good. Uhlemann then takes us through the aftermath from the psychological explosion and then provides the audience with a decidedly mainstream resolution.

One of the strengths of The Edge of Chaos is Uhlemann’s relentless focus on the family unit – the vast majority of the movie is filmed in the cloying claustrophobia of the family home – Derek’s mansion on the hill. The cinematography underscores the point – that despite the vitriol and hatred – the group see themselves as a family unit. On occasion though, the protagonists escape to the garden –a pity the director did not have some fun here with a piece of arriviste delirium – an Astro-turf golf putting green that appears as a garden feature in the middle distance.

Uhlemann makes a telling point with the reaction of all the family members to the revelation that Derek has corruptly sold off land designated for affordable housing. Nobody condemns the father’s moral turpitude – their sole concern is any potential damage to the family business and their own financial position. Looking in from outside, the intention is surely for the audience to be appalled by Derek’s action but even more so by the family’s response to it.

Affordable homes – what a dread phrase, it always poses the question as to why build unaffordable homes – but for younger people in its home audience and indeed audiences in the rest of Europe, the filmmaker flags this up as an indubitably Bad Thing. Uhlemann has given us a classic portrayal of a way of living that the anthropologist Edward Banfield characterised in the 1950s as amoral familism – Banfield’s study area was the Mezzogiorno, but it seems to be definitively a thing in contemporary County Wicklow and much of our world of possessive individualism.

The director and producer made a fine job of assembling their cast. The ensemble work from the actors was first class. There are so many memorable performances that I have namechecked almost the entire cast. I was particularly struck by an actor playing a small part – Rebecca Flynn as Paul’s pregnant wife – Flynn’s bemused wonderment at the family’s inability to tell the truth was an absolute delight. My favourite scene for sheer quality of acting came just after the explosion where the father and mother are coming to terms with the reality that their baroque edifice of deceit has been shattered. Ryan and Mahon play it superbly – managing to convey a weird combination of love and contempt for each other.  

I have a couple of reservations as to the production.

The explosion reveals a death long ago that has been kept secret in the family – which is not a surprise given the Keenan’s problematic approach to the truth. The death scene appears in flashbacks and the image of the dead person appears in emanations – representations of the consciousness of one of the lead characters – as signifiers of emotional trauma. The sequences, and there are many of them, make up almost a meta-narrative. The problem I had was they were all shot in a quite bland cinema verité which did not jar or shock – it felt as though they were continuities rather than a tearing of the fabric of reality.

In terms of the soundtrack, I enjoyed the compositions – mostly plangent electronic chords and harmonics – but I felt the music was laid on a bit thick in moments of emotional intensity. Whenever I get the impression that a musical score is telling me when and how to emote, the soundtrack has become part of the problem not part of the solution. For future work it might be worth toning it down a notch. That said, I totally loved the braggadocio guitar chords used on a couple of occasions to announce especially vitriolic family arguments. I think these are the same chords or near to them that Link (the twangs the thang) Wray used in his stupendous meditation on disorder, The Rumble, the only instrumental rock and roll record ever to be banned by US radio stations (for its alleged incitement of teenage gang violence).

More importantly, though, I had some moral qualms too. It is difficult to address these without to some extent revealing the details of the movie’s resolution. So as a spoiler alert, if you are planning to watch The Edge of Chaos, and I would emphatically recommend you do – it is probably best that you do not read the next three paragraphs which are intended as a start of a conversation with the director.

The problems I have centre on the movie’s gendering of alcoholism. Carrie is portrayed as, very much, a semi-professional alcoholic. She doesn’t shit or piss herself, slur her words or lose control of her speech patterns. She appears to have command of her body and her thought processes. OK – she drives her car with what we assume to be, way too much alcohol in her blood – but this seems to fit with the Keenan’s generally amoral world view.

The question I kept asking myself was – if Carrie had presented in this way as a man – would you have felt able to ask the audience to categorise the character as ‘an alcoholic’? Arguably not – and characters equivalent to a male Carrie have previously been cast as that venerable cinematic trope – the hard-drinking, go-getting, businessman. It should be noted the makers of The Edge of Chaos can’t be held responsible for a narrative trope which is far older than they are. But they certainly are responsible for how they handle this particular side of it.

The resolution involves Carrie being broken into submission and going into rehab. Carrie is reduced to a state of infantilism crying for her Mum and Dad. The heavily insinuating soundtrack music – calm piano music as Carrie is being driven to the institution, followed by an uplifting New Age folk ballad as she walks to the front door – tells us a healing process has begun. A Good Thing has happened. But has it?

The way in which Carrie is made to seek treatment is based on deceit. Derek’s purported altruistic reason for the calling of the family conference was a lie. The lie is then followed by an obnoxious act of duplicity by one of Carrie’s siblings which entraps her at the house overnight to allow the psychic assault and battery to take place. The final passages are scripted as though you are asking us to collude with the family’s modus operandi of secrets and lies – it is all very odd and left this reviewer very queasy. As Carrie went up to the door of the rehab – the thought occurred – well, at least we’re not in the world of 1950s psychiatry where the treatment for out-of-control women presenting as alcoholics, on occasion, ran to full frontal lobotomies. Though not much of a drinker nowadays, I felt like pouring myself a massive hit of vodka (Carrie’s drug of choice) as a valedictory up-yours to the movie’s conclusion.   

Despite my misgivings as to the film’s ambiguous morality, I must congratulate Uhlemann for an astonishingly accomplished debut feature. He shows exceptional ability – both as a screenwriter, in the development of his characters, and as a director in coaxing such strong performances from his players. If you get the chance, do see The Edge of Chaos – for the overall quality of the acting and for the central family meltdown scene which really is something to behold. And if you also feel yourself pushed toward the bar by its conclusion, feel free to join me for a stiff drink in the after-screening.

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