Neil Jordan is a filmmaker who, by my reckoning, has never made a movie that was without interest. Two years ago, in fact, I chose his quirky, fanciful Breakfast on Pluto as my pick for the best film of the year. It’s improbable that The Brave One is going to end up in that position, but I have to say I’ve been tussling with my feelings about it for three days now—usually a sign that a movie is destined to grow in my estimation with the passage of time.
When I first saw the trailer for The Brave One, I was not only unimpressed, I literally groaned at the prospect of Jodie Foster doing the Charles Bronson Death Wish shtick. While I have a great admiration for Foster’s talent, her recent choices in thrillers—Panic Room (2002) and Flightplan (2005)—were mostly notable for unintentional amusement, and this looked like it was going to be more of the same. (I exempt Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006) since it’s not a Foster vehicle.) I’m delighted to say that this film is not at all more of the same.
Among other things, this is the movie that James Wan’s recent Death Sentence wanted to be, but wasn’t. Death Sentence was a noisy, incoherent, overwrought action picture with delusions of making a statement on vigilantism. The Brave One is a film about the potential for violence in us all masquerading as a vigilante-crime thriller. There’s a significant difference. While the plot of the film is very similar to Michael Winner’s Death Wish (1974), The Brave One is much closer in spirit and intent to Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971)—and every bit as uncomfortable.
Foster plays Erica Bain, an upscale New Yorker with an NPR (they never identify it as such, but the station is referred to as “member-supported”) radio show, Street Walk, on which she waxes poetic about New York City. She also has the perfect fiancé, David (Naveen Andrews, Grindhouse), and even a great dog. Everything changes, however, after she and David take the dog for a walk in Central Park one night. Not long after they pass a sign marking “Strangers’ Gate” (a symbolic location, given that Erica will soon become a stranger to herself), they’re set upon by a gang of thugs, who kill David, leave Erica brutalized and take the dog. Suddenly, everything Erica held dear—including her cozy view of New York as “the safest big city in the world”—has been stripped from her, and she finds herself changed and vengeful. (Yes, the scenario can be read—and profitably—as a post-9/11 allegory.)
At this point, the film follows Erica’s increasing descent into the sickness of succumbing to the urge for violence, charting her course from almost accidental vigilante to a deliberate self-styled “angel of justice.” It can be argued—it has been argued—that this section of the film panders to our own baser desires, but that’s a shortsighted reading that fails to take into account that the film is intent on showing us our own worst side as much as that of its heroine. Moreover, Erica never becomes happy with her vigilante status, however addicted to it she becomes.
The original Death Wish—which did seek to justify vigilantism—contained a sequence of TV-news clips showing other city dwellers who had chosen to follow Bronson’s example. The Brave One has a similar moment when the now-angry and hate-filled Erica’s radio show has become even more popular as a result, and the producer (Mary Steenburgen) decides to open up the program to callers. Erica talks about the vigilante, expecting to hear outraged callers—even hoping for them—and instead is largely greeted by listeners who view this nameless killer as a hero. Implicitly, this positive response becomes part of the drug that keeps her on this path, which leads her to an increasingly twisted view of life.
Her view becomes so skewed that her growing fondness for the sympathetic but suspicious detective, Mercer (a terrific world-weary performance by Terrence Howard), who is investigating the vigilante killings, can only be expressed by her taking the law into her own hands over a separate case as a favor to him. The point to it all is that there’s never any satisfaction to any of this, no sense of release or relief, no joy—only deepening misery.
In Jordan’s hands, the film becomes a tormented trip into a nightmarish world of murky darkness and neo-Expressionist camera angles. The more “normal” moments, for that matter—especially the borderline romantic ones with Erica and Mercer—have a kind of 3 a.m. melancholy to them. This is not a happy film by any stretch of the imagination. Even its ending—which is being largely misread as happy—is far from that, though it’s not without a faint glimmer of hope when Erica crosses back through “Strangers’ Gate.”
I’m well aware that a film like this runs the danger of being misinterpreted by those who love the idea of vigilante justice—just check out any online message board to see a wide array of bloodthirsty armchair-macho types. But that isn’t the fault of Jordan or the film anymore than it was Norman Lear’s fault when every bigot in the country took Archie Bunker as a positive role model. The Brave One is anything but an endorsement of Erica’s behavior. Instead, it shows us the darkest side of an otherwise intelligent and decent person, and in so doing holds up a mirror to a darkness that dwells in us all, demanding we face up to it and be better than it. Rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality.