Malcolm Toohey (Joel Edgerton) has the perfect life: a great family and a job as a respected police officer. One night, after celebrating a successful arrest, he makes a potentially fatal error that lands a child in a coma. He covers up the tragic accident by lying with the help of his senior officer Carl Summer (Tom Wilkinson), who is only looking out for one of his own. However, Summer's new partner, Jim Melic (Jai Courtney), has his suspicions and starts investigating to find the truth.

Momentum stalls in morality play.

TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: An internal affairs procedural concerned with the knotted intersection of good v. bad and right v. wrong, Felony’s strong premise doesn’t quite survive a meandering storyline. Director Matthew Saville opens the film with a jolt: Sydney detective Malcolm Toohey (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote the script) takes a shot to his bulletproof vest while chasing a suspect through some kind of warehouse. The suspect is caught and 'Mal," as he is known to his colleagues and his wife (Melissa George), is the hero of an hour that closes quickly. Driving home, drunk, from the evening’s celebration, he accidentally strikes down a young boy out delivering papers on his bike.

strangely little feels at stake

The series of decisions Mal makes in the immediate wake of the accident set the rest of Felony in motion. He lies about his role in the boy’s near-fatal injury, first to emergency responders, then to the detectives, Carl (Tom Wilkinson) and his young new partner Jim (Jai Courtney), who arrive on the scene. Saville sets up the premise with sleek and assured direction, but the energy of the first 20 minutes dissipates as the story shifts onto Jim’s suspicions that Mal is not, as we already know, innocent of wrongdoing. Edgerton sets up a pleasing tension between Wilkinson, magnificent even when acting from under his eyebrows, and the stony, righteous Courtney: initially, it’s unclear whether Carl is savvy or just lazy, past his prime. As Jim’s unauthorised investigation closes in on the truth, Carl assumes the story’s twisted moral nexus.

'Time and the world swallows events," Carl says. 'It’s sad, but that’s how it is." And so, according to Carl, every case requires the application not of a strict ethical code but keen moral discretion. Mal 'didn’t mean to do anything bad," therefore the truth is of no benefit, to anyone involved. Mal, whose fixed expression Carl accurately describes as that of a chronic pants-wetter, begins to feel otherwise. As the victim lingers in a coma, his comely single mother (Sarah Roberts) at his side, Mal moves toward confession. Only Jim, who burns for the truth, believes this to be a good idea. 'I might not seem like a good person," George tells her husband, articulating Mal’s (and the script’s) dilemma, 'but I have to be a good mother. I think [staying mum] is right, but I hate myself for saying it."

Despite a familiar but well-developed concept, strangely little feels at stake in Felony. Edgerton’s performance as a decent guy caught in a bad situation doesn’t vary much over the course of the film; it’s Wilkinson who gets to dig into the infernal, alcoholic Carl, who holds Mal and Jim in a perilous balance. Eventually Carl, frustrated with crusader Jim’s T-1000-like focus on exposing Mal’s deception, unloads a brilliant riff on being the guy in the band whom nobody likes, the guy who’s always complaining about playing a band mate’s shitty song, instead of pitching in for the greater good, lest his own shitty songs should go unplayed.

Felony appears to stall in its final half-hour. Both Jim and Mal are drawn to the victim’s mother, and Roberts give a warm, human intelligence to a tricky role. That kind of emotional precision is missing from the film’s swollen climax. After a late turn into melodrama, in its final moments Felony finds a note of moral reckoning more perfect for its understatement.