The night before Kelly (Brittany Ashworth) and her friend Sophie (Anaïs Parello) are due to scale the dangerous face of Antelao, highest pinnacle in the Dolomite Mountains of northeastern Italy, they are joined at the complex of cabins where they are staying by a quartet of four more Americans. Josh (Ben Lamb), Reynolds (Nathan Welsh), Zac (Louis Bayer) and Taylor (David Wayman) are old schoolfriends whose simple plan has been, as Zac will later put it, to “go to Italy, bang some chicks, get high and climb a rock”. After a night of indulgence, this fratboy pack’s alpha Josh tries to rape Sophie and then murders her, and the other men fall in behind their friend’s attempted cover-up, owing to a misplaced sense of loyalty. Capturing part of this on camera, Kelly finds herself frantically dashing up the cliff-face earlier than expected with material evidence of a crime on her person, and four desperate men in pursuit. Soon she is caught between a rock and a hard place – trapped on a narrow ledge, under-equipped and underdressed in the cold just beneath the mountain’s summit, with her persecutors above just waiting for her to make a wrong move.
Nothing says ‘cliffhanger’ quite like the real thing, and so Howard J. Ford‘s vertiginous climbing thriller The Ledge comes with the most literal kinds of suspense. Its heroine, though smart and resourceful, spends most of the film’s duration confined to the tiniest of spaces, at the mercy of the men above. Indeed, her predicament might be regarded as a metaphor for female oppression, with the outcrop of overhanging rock that separates her from the mountaintop like the ‘glass ceiling’, imposed by men, that impedes women’s upwards progress. Certainly Josh – bullying, sociopathic and thoroughly misogynistic – embodies a deep seam of toxic masculinity, but Tom Boyle’s screenplay also carefully traces the way that the other three men, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes less so, fall in behind Josh’s odious actions. For all four are bound to one another not just by the usual homosocial ties of fraternity, but by a shared act of wrongdoing in their past rites of masculine passage – and with this common history comes an insidious, heavily compromising complicity that resembles nothing less than the inexorable gravitational forces of patriarchy itself.
Although Josh constantly appeals to the others’ sense of loyalty, he is himself disloyal to a fault, and even more treacherous than the near vertical, snake-infested cliff-face below. Coming with no redeeming features whatsoever, he is the kind of antagonist that viewers cannot wait to see getting his comeuppance. As for his hapless gang, they are, as the nicest among them puts it, “only here because we don’t have the balls not to be.” Here, once one of their number goes rogue and gets exposed, the whole male crew must stick with Josh against the elements and, in order to help cover up his criminal actions, must carry out even more terrible acts. The two women are casually hung out to dry as entirely expendable collateral damage in these male power games – not that the other men fare much better when they find themselves equally disposable in Josh’s selfish scheme.
Perched above Kelly’s ledge, Josh literally looks down on the woman from his position of superiority, and repeatedly hurls sadistic taunts at her that are designed to break her spirit. His, however, is not the only male voice in Kelly’s head. For just as Josh and his buddies are driven to wrongful acts by the bad that they broke together years earlier, Kelly too has a traumatic past on which she can draw, as she struggles to surmount her grief for her beloved boyfriend Luca (Stefan Knezević). In fact, this ascent of Antelao marks the one-year anniversary of Luca’s death in an accidental fall from the same mountain, and his encouraging words to Kelly from back when he was first teaching her to climb echo in her mind as a counterpoint to Josh’s verbal poison, and give her the motivation to go on.
Spectacularly shot, The Ledge presents its battle of the sexes as a perilous, precarious aerial ordeal. Kelly’s determined efforts to keep a grip on her situation against all odds recall another of Ford’s female-focused titles, Never Let Go (2015) – while her increasingly feral battle against outdoor male attackers are like a solo reimagining of Renny Harlin’s Cliffhanger (1993), Julian Gilbey’s A Lonely Place To Die (2011) or Katie Aselton’s Black Rock (2012). Making the most of its picturesque Alpine setting, this is a taut, spare flick that delivers plenty of dizzying ‘edge’ to accompany its feminist outlook, without ever getting elevated above its B-movie station.
Strap: Peak patriarchy: Howard J. Ford’s literally suspenseful thriller pits a female mountaineer against a pack of men compromised by their own toxicity
© Anton Bitel