The Brave One
The Brave One is being advertised as a revenge pic even though it is nothing of the sort. It has more in common with M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable or even the TV series Heroes than with Charles Bronson’s Death Wish. The Brave One feels like a superhero movie, charting the familiar origins story of an unsuspecting everywoman who discovers one day that a gun gives her special powers to right wrongs and uphold justice. Jodie Foster is a vigilante Batman without the mask and cape.
Jodie Foster is Erica Bain, the host of an NPR-esque radio show, “Street Walk” in which she trawls the boulevards of the Big Apple, recording the soundscape of “the safest big city in the world.” But that pithy punch line is obliterated the evening she and her fiancée David (Naveen Andrews) are brutally attacked while walking in Central Park. David’s injuries prove fatal and while Erica’s physical wounds heal, her emotional wounds do not.
Devastated by grief and paralyzed by fear, Erica buys a gun, presumably for protection. Suddenly she finds herself (or does she inject herself?) in the middle of seemingly random acts of violence in which she dispatches cold justice and is hailed as a vigilante hero by the public. By-the-book NYPD detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard) cannot condone such vigilante justice even if he has grown increasingly frustrated with a justice system stymied by bureaucratic indifference. Having grown close to Erica since her attack, he now grows increasingly suspicious of her role in the killings.
The Brave One is directed by Neil Jordan, not a mainstream director by anyone’s estimation. Yet the man more known for crafting controversial independent films such as The Crying Game than studio-sanctioned action films, has teamed with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot to create a sumptuous, glowing, sooty, edgy, beautiful looking film. It may not be material up to Jordan’s usual form, but is sure looks like it.
Foster gives a powerful, emotionally raw performance in which she begins as a soft, plucky woman in the throes of love but ends as a black clad, chain-smoking, butch, physically gaunt avenging angel. It is a dark and effective transformation that the always-impressive Foster makes look easy. Foster allows us further access into Erica’s interior world through her splendid radio broadcasts, which act as narration, even providing commentary on her own, anonymous vigilantism.
Like the abominable Death Sentence — also in theaters now — The Brave One attempts to ask the questions: can we ever recover what is lost when it is so viciously taken from us? Does retribution merely make us into the very thing we loathe? Is living with the pain more acceptable than using the fuel of reciprocity to move on? And is survival worthwhile if we must “become someone else, a stranger” in order to do so?
The Brave One does not try to hide the fact that it is a meta-commentary on America’s post-9/11 wounds and the country’s attempt at closure through violent retribution in Iraq. While the stage is set in New York City (a darker New York that has more in common with 1970’s sensibilities than with today’s Giuliani-scrubbed metropolis), it could be Anywhere, USA. The greater commentary is on a life lived in fear and how one reacts to that fear.
The Brave One’s most glaring failing is that is it is forced to sacrifice realism in order to progress the plot. Bain, who has not had a violent encounter in all her years in Manhattan, suddenly finds herself embroiled in half a dozen over the course of a summer — after she purchases her handgun, of course. Defending oneself should the regrettable occasion arise is certainly reasonable. But purposely putting oneself in a situation in which you most certainly will be required to act violently is something else entirely.
There is something undeniably attractive about the vigilante who enacts justice on those outside of the scope of the law. We take primal satisfaction watching the “bad guy get it good,” while ignoring the ethical morass created by the person who considers themselves above the law. The title of the film considers Foster’s character “brave” because of her decisive actions. But is she? In order to feel human again, she must commit murder, gouging out her own humanity and that of others. And that is a burden too great for any mortal — or superhero — to bear.