What separates a cop from a criminal? This evergreen question has been asked countless times over the years – the answer of course being more complicated than “a badge”. It’s also a good conversation starter if you bumped into Joel Edgerton in a bar, since the Sydney-born star’s oeuvre is chock-full of characters from both sides of the law. In these roles, sometimes the line between right and wrong is clear-cut, but mostly the actor relishes blurring convenient definitions.
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The new Australian film The Stranger – which screened at Melbourne International Film Festival this month and arrives on Netflix in October – features Edgerton at his brooding best, playing an undercover cop named Mark who is investigating the abduction and potential murder of a missing boy. Stylishly written and directed by Thomas M. Wright, who was inspired by the real-life murder case of 13-year-old Daniel Morcombe, the film is not your run-of-the-mill procedural.
The Stranger examines the trauma inflicted by undercover investigations –an element of many police dramas, but this film takes it to the next level. In his interactions with the suspect (Sean Harris), Mark masks the deep anguish and anxiety the case inflicts on him as the father of a young child. He’s clearly a “good guy”, doing difficult work for the right reasons, but it’s not a role that easily fits into easy definitions. It’s one of Edgerton’s stand-out performances – and far from his only portrayal as a law enforcer.
Joel Edgerton relishes blurring convenient definitions
In the 2015 gangster drama Black Mass, he played a more templated character: a bullish FBI agent named John Connolly who believes he has “an edict to eradicate the mafia”. Easier said than done, though the job appears to become a wee bit more manageable when Connolly successfully recruits one hell of a snitch: mob boss James “Whitey” Bulger. Bulger is played by Johnny Depp, who looks creepily unreal with slicked-back greasy hair, a pointy nose and vacant, eerie blue eyes.
Deep walks around in human-special-effect mode while Edgerton looks squarish and business-like in a suit and tie. Which is not to say he’s a by-the-book professional: under pressure to deliver concrete evidence, Connolly enters a problematic “one hand washes the other” relationship with Bulger, doing the goon favours in return for information. Edgerton delivers a strong, vigorous performance but the character is limited, as is the film, which flaps around in a meh middle zone: no bad scenes, but few good ones.
A law enforcer with a stronger sense of moral rectitude is Edgerton’s LAPD officer Nick Jakoby from the 2017 Netflix film Bright. Director David Ayer fuses what would have been a cookie cutter buddy cop movie – with Will Smith playing Edgerton’s partner – onto a fantastical alternate universe setting. In this world, magic exists, fairies are as annoying as flies, and mythical creatures become metaphors for racism. Jakoby is an orc, and the proverbial meat in the middle of the sandwich: despised by fellow orcs for working with the fuzz, who have long oppressed them, and loathed by his colleagues for being “one of them”.
Edgerton is unrecognisable, thanks to the full-blown fantasy film makeover – including pasty blue skin and mustard yellow eyes. The actor’s voice is usually gruff but here it’s downright guttural, as if he learned to speak in the sewer. It’s a thoroughly convincing performance in a so-so film, which feels by-the-numbers despite its zany scaffolding.
For a tightener, tenser, more grounded experience, consult the gripping 2013 Australian drama Felony, which Edgerton wrote. Like The Stranger, it examines trauma experienced by a cop he plays, here in relation to immoral behaviour – Edgerton’s Detective Malcolm Toohey attempting to cover his tracks after hitting a cyclist with his car on the way home from the pub.
If the actor’s cops have a tendency to behave untowardly, making the point that they’re not necessarily “good” people, his criminals have a tendency to behave in ways suggesting they’re not all bad – or at least not villainous in the conventional sense. In the 2016 sci-fi Midnight Special, Edgerton plays Lucas, who helps Michael Shannon’s Roy across the country with a kidnapped child, Alton (Jaeden Martell), in tow.
But this is no ordinary abduction movie, Lucas is no ordinary criminal, and Alton no ordinary boy. The kid has special powers and wears swimming goggles to stop his eyes leaking uncontrollable blue laser beams, like Cyclops from the X-Men. Lucas is a fugitive and a criminal (in a tight spot, he even fires on a cop) but also a moral person – the kind who says “don’t shoot” and “let’s go to the hospital”.
The crims Edgerton has played in Australian films have been, shall we say, less principled. He appears in Animal Kingdom as the friend of Ben Mendelsohn’s Pope (a very creepy dude, even by Mendelsohn’s very creepy standards) and plays a bit part in the under-appreciated 2008 neo-noir The Square (directed by his brother Nash) as a goon paid to burn down a person’s house, unaware that an elderly lady is sleeping inside it. And he’s completely psychopathic as a killer in the 2009 horror movie Acolytes, which was nobody’s finest hour.
Edgerton’s greatest performance to date as a “bad guy” is in the 2015 thriller The Gift, which he also wrote and directed, making his feature film directorial debut. Gordon “Gordo” Moseley is the kind of antisocial character a young Robert DeNiro might have elevated to the level of Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) or Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy). Not that Edgerton doesn’t nail the careful balance required to suggest, without directly stating it, that something isn’t quite right about the seemingly mild-mannered everyman.
The words “bad guy” have been put in quotation marks to reflect the film’s spirit of ambiguity and the way Edgerton chips away at conventional notions of villainy. Gordo inserts himself into the lives of married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), reminding the former – who initially doesn’t recognise him – that they went to high school together. After tolerating him for a little while, Simon attempts to end the friendship by escalating the drama, which eventually reveals the extent of their relationship and a terrible past.
Like The Stranger and Felony, The Gift also examines trauma. But while Edgerton the undercover agent – and Edgerton the dodgy cop attempting to cover his tracks – wrestles with trauma in order to do what’s right, Edgerton the antisocial weirdo is driven by different intentions. These three excellent performances are the jewels in his cop/criminal crown, taking us back to the original observation: that morality, and the line between “good” and “bad”, has nothing to do with wearing a badge.
The Stranger screens one last time at Melbourne International Film Festival on August 21 before an October release on Netflix