Every once in a while a movie comes along from some interesting filmmaker, like A History of Violence or the The Astronaut Farmer, that leaves the viewer squinting at something that appears so straightforward, you wonder whether the makers are entirely serious.
It’s a bit like a Calvin & Hobbes strip from 15 years ago, in which Calvin follows up a grotesque, avant-garde snow sculpture ridiculing bourgeois tastes with a very traditional snowman representing, Calvin says, “popular nostalgia for the simple values of rural America 50 years ago.” Even so, he claims his traditional snowman was “very avant-garde.” How’s that? Hobbes wonders. Confides Calvin: “It’s secretly ironic.”
What Neil Jordan’s The Brave One shares with the other films mentioned above is a rigid adherence to convention more conventional than all but the most mechanical instances of its genre. The violence in Jordan’s film, like the violence (and sex) in Cronenberg’s, may shock or startle, but the plot seems rigorously calculated never to surprise. It almost leads you to expect a twist, and then the twist is that there is no twist. It does exactly what such movies do, and then it does it some more, and then it stops. Is it an exemplar of the genre, or a self-conscious deconstruction? It all depends on whether the snowman is smiling because he’s smiling, or because he knows snowmen are supposed to smile.
Though overtly reminiscent of such unrepentantly trashy fare as Death Wish and Ferrera’s Ms .45, The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster, doesn’t seem to want to be a trashy film. The thing is, it doesn’t seem to want to be something else, either.
The Brave One reminds us — twice — that New York City is “the safest big city in the world.” It also subjects a previously happy, well-adjusted New Yorker named Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) to a battery of unrelated incidents of horrifying brutality and murderous menace, any one of which is potentially plausible, but which collectively defy all credibility.
It’s a movie in which every slimeball Erica encounters menaces her with remorseless, repulsive sadism — there’s never anyone who just has a lewd comment, say, or even just wants to steal her purse. Everyone wants to bludgeon or shoot her, mutilate and molest her, enslave her, run her over, what have you.
Erica hosts a radio show called Street Walk, a strange sort of synthesis of NPR programming. By day, she’s at ease walking the city streets alone recording sound clips for her show. At night, accompanied both by her hunky fiancé David (Naveen Andrews, “Lost”) and her big German shepherd Max, she’s comfortable strolling through Central Park. Then comes the night her life is shattered by a group of vicious punks who take the dog, gleefully batter her and David nearly to roadkill, and leave them for dead. Three weeks later, Erica awakens in the hospital to learn that David is dead and buried.
Jordan idealizes Erica’s sense of security prior to the tragedy: She seems not only unafraid, but lacking basic awareness, living in an idyllic world without a hint of risk. Afterwards, not only Erica but the city seems transformed, suddenly menacing and dangerous.
Partly this reflects Erica’s changed consciousness, but the unsubtlety seems manipulative. Until that night in Central Park, when both she and David take too long to start feeling apprehensive, there’s no hint of a disconnect between her comfort level and her environment. Afterwards, apart from an early scene depicting Erica’s anxiety at sharing the sidewalk with an anonymous pedestrian whom she fears is following her, there’s little to suggest an overreaction in the other direction.
Certainly, once Erica acquires a 9mm handgun — an illegal purchase from a street vendor cannily loitering outside a gun shop, catching exiting patrons on the rebound from the 30-day waiting period — there’s never any doubts about the brutality of her world. The filmmakers do their best to vary her experiences and provide other victims — domestic violence in a convenience store that turns into a kill-or-be-killed shoot-out; a subway robbery that leads to ugly aggravated sexual assault (though not battery); a depraved solicitation from a john holding a drugged whore prisoner in the back seat of his car; and so on.
Although there is a certain escalation in the film — Erica starts out with pure self-defense, but moves up to self-defense after passing up an opportunity to escape, to self-defense after asking for trouble, to actively hunting down and confronting bad guys, and even going a step beyond that — it seems telling that Erica never takes on anyone who hasn’t just been trying to kill her or is at least threatening her with deadly force or serious harm.
What about the police? The Brave One largely depicts them as professional but callous and unhelpful. “I understand how hard this can be,” a desk sergeant repeats to each hurting soul who comes in the door. The big exception is Detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard), a sensitive officer who’s good with kids and takes his job very much to heart. He listens to Erica’s radio show and eventually strikes up a friendship with her even as he investigates what eventually appears to be a string of vigilante attacks throughout the city. The film tries to make their interaction the personal center of the story, but neither character is sufficiently self-aware to make their relationship very compelling.
The Brave One may raise the question whether Erica’s actions are right or wrong, whether in some case the right thing to do is to get out of harm’s way or not put oneself in jeopardy, etc., but that everyone deserves what they get is pretty much a foregone conclusion. (Critic Ed Gonzalez points out in his Slant.com review that this contrasts with Ms .45, in which the victim’s sense of empowerment is undermined by having her exact “revenge” on any male who crosses her, whether or not there was any threat.)
By confronting Erica with uniformly despicable thugs who consistently present a clear and present danger to Erica and to others, The Brave One makes their murders as gratifying as possible to the viewer. Foster has suggested in interviews that the film is anti-violence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Jordan agrees.
In practice, though, The Brave One plays as a straightforward revenge flick, nothing more. If it doesn’t condone Erica’s vendetta outright, it’s certainly sympathetic to the argument that if battered women acquired powerful handguns and took to blowing bad guys away, the world would be a better place.
Well-crafted but improbable action set pieces cast the 56-year-old Neeson as an essentially indomitable force taking on and prevailing against almost any number of gun-toting assailants — like Jason Bourne, Bryan combines boundless resourcefulness with essentially indomitable physical prowess — but the film’s emotional force rests on the comparatively persuasive setup.
Trade needed to be the United 93 of the human trafficking crisis. It’s closer to being the World Trade Center.
"In the Church they say to forgive," one character observes dubiously. But in Creasy’s book, to forgive is divine, to mutilate and butcher human. "Forgiveness is between them and God," he says, conveniently overlooking the relevant biblical injunctions even though we know he can quote chapter and verse when he wants to. "My job is to arrange the meeting." We know we should agree with Creasy, because his murderous rampage is scored by a cool rock soundtrack and sanctified by a mother’s kiss. That’s got to be righteous.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.