I love movies like The Brave One. This is the kind of thing that polarizes people and gets them arguing in the lobby. Half the audience will see a thoughtful, provocative meditation on violence/vigilantism in modern society. The other half will see a cheap exploitation movie hiding under the veneer of Hollywood A-list “artistry.” I fall mostly in the former camp, although I confess that the picture left me somewhat frustrated with its wholly avoidable flaws.
Jodie Foster plays Erica Bain, a New York radio personality on an NPR-type station. She is madly in love with fiancée David (Naveen Andrews) and they are finalizing their wedding invitations when we first meet them. One night they take their dog for a walk through Central Park and are confronted by some gang members who steal the dog, then savagely beat Erica and David. (The sequence is artistically valid, but also so intense and so upsetting that it made me sick to my stomach.) David dies of his injuries, and Erica goes into a coma for several weeks.
When she wakes up, her spirit has transformed. She describes having a previously unknown sense of fear dominating her life. She no longer feels safe anywhere. She assumes danger is lurking at every corner. Her sense of security has been totally stripped away. Erica compensates for this by illegally purchasing a handgun, which she totes with her everywhere. By coincidence, she is in a convenience store when a man comes in and shoots the woman behind the counter. Without thinking too hard, Erica wastes him, steals the security tape and leaves. Shooting him seems to have caused her fear to recede – at least temporarily – and before you know it, she is placing herself in dangerous situations where that gun comes in pretty handy.
As bodies start piling up, Erica gains the attention of Mercer (Terrence Howard), a detective investigating the sudden upsurge in vigilante crimes across the city. She’s ostensibly interviewing him for her radio program, but we can tell that she senses a kindred spirit. When Mercer talks at length about a slippery criminal he’s been unsuccessfully trying to bust, Erica realizes that he too has felt the Fear.
They say that people who have suffered a trauma often intentionally re-traumatize themselves by entering situations similar to the one that caused the problem in the first place. More than anything, this is what The Brave One shows perfectly. There’s definitely a post-9/11 vibe to the film that helps it hit home. Because of terrorism and the fragile state of the world, most (if not all) of us feel the same kind of fear that Erica can’t escape – the nervousness that the trauma could be repeated, causing us to re-experience the very thing that was so horrifically painful to begin with. When you look at it in those terms, it becomes easier to understand why Erica behaves the way she does, even though most rational folks would recognize that her actions are ultimately more damaging than helpful.
So why re-traumatize oneself voluntarily? People do it because they hope to create a different outcome. Erica experiences violence up-close and finds that it changes her immeasurably. She even tells her listeners that you can’t experience violence first-hand and not be changed by it. Feeling that society has given its citizens no real way to fight back only increases her fear. When she tries to go to the cops, she gets lost in bureaucracy and red tape. Director Neil Jordan (The Crying Game) makes it quite clear that Erica temporarily finds respite from the fear when she puts herself in these situations because, for a brief moment, she is doing something about it.
That’s a fascinating idea, and even better is the fact that the story allows Erica to like it just a little too much. The high that comes from ridding the world of another criminal is short-lived, followed by Erica’s intense horror that she has actually ended a human life. As played superbly by Jodie Foster, the character has to confront the fact that she’s becoming more and more like the guys who killed David every time she pulls the trigger. Most movies would want you to feel good when the hero blows away the scumbags; The Brave One wants you to feel bad. And you do. Foster, an actress who exudes great intelligence with every breath she takes, masterfully shows us all the conflicting feelings that Erica has. No, she is not killing good, upstanding people. Then again, killing’s killing, right? I am reminded of the famous line delivered by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.” Foster’s grade-A performance embodies that sentiment.
Most movies don’t deal with violence in any kind of meaningful way. Instead, they present it in bursts and then move on to the next thing, ignoring the consequences. I have to admire any film that at least tries to explore our individual and/or cultural reaction to violence. And as ambitious as it is, The Brave One somehow still fails to be a definitive statement on the subject. Parts of the movie seem to be just a little too obviously screen-written. It’s not hard to believe that a woman like Erica could find danger in the streets of a big city, but it can be hard to swallow that she could so easily end up in such dire situations one after another. Also, the way the subplot about Mercer’s other case intersects with the main plot is rushed through too quickly to have the kind of meaning it intends.
Much has been made of the fact that The Brave One wants to be to the first decade of the 21st century what Taxi Driver was to the 1970’s. The difference is that the eruption of violence that capped Martin Scorsese’s classic (one of my favorite films ever) left things messy – both literally and thematically – whereas this one ties things up just a bit too neatly. Without giving anything away, I’m not sure that the ending of The Brave One doesn’t accidentally send the wrong message. For most of its running time, it is clear that the movie has negative feelings about vigilantism; however, the story’s resolution almost seems to condone it. Certain characters do things that they wouldn’t do in real life, allowing for outcomes that feel a little too Hollywood-ized. You’re probably going to figure out what will happen before it actually does (as I did), and you’re probably going to be disappointed that the movie didn’t come up with something much more realistic/plausible.
Ultimately, I do recommend the movie – for Foster’s stunning performance, for Terrence Howard’s finely-detailed supporting work, for Neil Jordan’s thoughtful direction, and for the story’s willingness to explore the honest-to-goodness implications of violence. These elements make it a cut above the rest when it comes to vigilante tales. If The Brave One hadn’t felt the need to conform to the format of a mainstream Hollywood movie – where a piece of action has to occur on a regular basis and the ending has to be tidy – it might have been a movie for the ages. As a movie for right now, it gets credit for at least pushing all the thematically correct buttons.
( out of four)
The Brave One DVD contains about ten minutes of deleted scenes, including one insightful sequence in which Jodie Foster’s character briefly goes to a martial arts studio after being attacked. There’s also a nice scene with Terrence Howard that helps flesh out his character’s back-story a little bit.
Also included is “I Walk the City,” an informative half-hour documentary about the making of the film. Director Neil Jordan discusses the reasons why he chose to go against the norm and direct a script he didn’t write. He also talks about the crucial decision to film in New York instead of Canada or a studio. Also in the feature, Jodie Foster explains how she helped shape her character. One significant contribution she made was to suggest that Erica be an NPR-type radio personality, when she was a reporter in the original screenplay. The film’s writer and re-writer also appear to talk about the challenges of telling a new kind of vigilante story.
The Brave One is available in fullscreen and widescreen formats. The film will be hit DVD and Blu-Ray on Feb. 5, with a Feb. 26 release date scheduled for the HD-DVD version.
The Brave One is rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 2 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: The Brave One
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