Jagged Edge (1985): Revisiting a Genre-Defining Thriller

Jagged Edge is a courtroom drama and murder mystery that won rave reviews for its plot and lead performances and was both critically and commercially acclaimed. Featuring a controversial and shocking ending, it helped introduce a new wave of crime dramas that dominated the decade to come. It’s also has a very cool title.

Courtroom dramas tend fall into one of two categories, with either a falsely accused person fighting for justice or a righteous lawyer winning the day, usually with a rousing closing arguments or cross examinations full of emotional “I want the truth!” moments. Richard Marquand‘s Jagged Edge, takes both of these tropes and spins them so often, by the time it’s over, we’re dizzy enough that we nearly topple over. Its premise is so twisted and purposefully convoluted, we are like spectators at a professional tennis match, thinking the answer is in one direction before it’s volleyed back in another. Well-acted and confidently directed, Jagged Edge is a thrilling experience that truly keeps audiences guessing literally to the last frame. And even then, the pause button might come into play.

It begins with a home invasion. A man in a black mask and dark clothes enters the home of wealthy social butterfly Page Forrester (Maria Mayenzet) and after tying her to a bed, guts her using a hunting knife equipped with a, well, read the film’s title again. With her spilled blood, the killer writes the word Bitch on a nearby wall because any self-respecting murderous movie maniac knows the screenwriter rules for murderous movie maniacs requires he do so. Not long after, in a nearby hospital, Jack Forrester (Jeff Bridges), Page’s husband, is recovering from a head wound he claims he received from the killer, knocking him unconscious while he murdered his wife. District Attorney Thomas Krasny (Peter Coyote) isn’t buying his story though and has him arrested based mostly on a hunting knife found in his gym locker that matches the murder weapon (one with a jagged edge!). Incriminating enough sure, but the doctor’s report also suggests–based on the angle–Jack’s head wound was most likely self-inflicted. That ain’t good. More damning, Jack stands to gain a small fortune from the settlement of his wife’s estate. Really, all this case needs is a big red bow and greeting card signed “Gotcha”.

But hold on. In comes Terry Barns (Glenn Close), a successful, attractive, high-powered defense attorney who Jack invites to represent him. You’d think she’d jump at the chance but . . . she declines because a) she used to work for the Krasny before he became the DA, and b) a smart girl knows you gotta play hard to get. Sure enough, after some time, and because of some bad blood between her and Krasny, she decides to take the case but on one condition only: No matter what, Jack must not lie to her. That’s a fair request, but since this is a movie and we’re barely twenty minutes in, we know for sure that’s him lying is about as likely as me typing the word corroborate in the next sentence. Jack agrees, takes a polygraph test to corroborate (ding!) his story and presto, he’s got himself an attorney. No way these two are going to have sex. Oh wait. This was written by Joe Eszterhas. These two are definitely going to have sex.

Jagged Edge
Glenn Close, Jeff Bridges (Jagged Edge, 1985)

A trial date is set so the two naturally spend a lot of personal time together, at first professionally but then a lot more casually. And it’s no wonder. Jack is handsome and charming. He also seems sincere, honestly working with Terry to clear his name. But mostly he handsome and charming. Just look at that guy. Terry gets a little caught up in those smokey blue eyes and with a little help from nature and circumstances, falls in lust love. Jack claims he does too, and because so, the case takes a decidedly juicy turn, especially for Terry, who ends up at odds with her investigator (an Academy Award-nominated performance by Robert Loggia), who warns her she’s getting too close to the client. In more ways than one. As we follow Terry’s side of the story, it’s not long before it’s her story we follow the closest, and as she the story unfolds, she comes to learn a few troubling facts about our hero. Or so she thinks. As the trial begins and the evidence mounts for both sides, we ask ourselves two questions: is she in love with a killer, or a victim? And just how close to the edge of our seats can we sit before we fall flat on our duffs and spill our caramel-coated popcorn? (I’ll just go ahead and assume that’s what you’re eating because duh, why would you eat anything else?)

Jagged Edge
Jagged Edge, 1985

And here we come to the first of a few minor issues. The question of Jack’s guilt or innocence becomes the film’s singular conceit and it both draws us in with exceptional moments of suspense and drama, but since that is all the film can do, also leaves us a bit wanting for the characters themselves as they remain only players in the big game rather than more fully developed people we can sympathize with. It is a sea-saw of accusations and revelations, with Terry wildly rising and dipping from one side to the other.

That’s not a criticism as much as an observation. Marquad deftly handles this back and forth with some terrifically convincing courtroom moments, where some of the best battles take place between Barns and Krasny. This escalates until a key moment when Krasny reveals something that he really should have thought more about. It nearly gets him disbarred. But it’s these two powerful and dynamic lawyers in action that set the stage for some great courtroom banter, punctuated by the always questionable Jack looking on.

That the film plays with the audience from start to finish, finding all the right hooks to keep us engaged is a real testament to the writing of Eszterhas, who would find even greater success with Basic Instinct (and then stumble with Showgirls). It’s a seedy, sexy story held together with some solid performances and an eerily memorable score by the always reliable John Barry. Even now, decades later, this is one of those films that really ages well.

As a fan of the film and the genre though, there is one bit of contention that takes a bit of the fun away though, and that is the aforementioned final shot. As we learn to swing back and forth from start to finish about Jack’s place in all of this, we develop a kind of gut feeling and begin to become amateur lawyers and investigators on our own (something any great movie of this genre does well). We piece it all together, making our own decisions and judgments, and that makes for half the fun. But as effective as the film is throughout, it stops just short of true greatness by actually revealing just who the real killer is, a decision that was surely made by an executive and not the director or writer. By giving the answer away, we are denied the conversation after, and that is precisely what this type of film needs, a dialogue that keeps people thinking about it long after it’s over. As it stands, that conversation ends far too soon.