Tuesday, September 11, 2007

"The Brave One" -- * *

Starting this Friday, many people nationwide are going to be disheartened by the cheers and applause emanating from their multiplexes. These sounds will be filling theaters showing Neil Jordan’s “The Brave One,” a taut, well-made vigilante thriller that is hindered somewhat by the fact that it brandishes a screenplay that is morally repugnant, even by my relatively open-minded tastes.

While Erica Bane (Jodie Foster) is walking her German shepherd with her boyfriend David (Naveen Andrews), a group of three thugs attack the pair in a fucking brutal beating, killing David, leaving Erica for dead and stealing the dog. Though still horribly shaken up—she shudders every time someone walks too close to her on the streets of New York—she unsteadily returns to her job as host of radio show “StreetWalk” (her on-air narration bookends the film) after awaking from a three-week-long coma. While growing impatient waiting to give a police report, she spur-of-the-moment goes to buy a gun. After witnessing a convenience store shooting, she whips out her gun and kills the assailant. Deciding she just doesn’t want to take being a scared victim anymore, Erica embarks on a spree of sorts—a female “Death Wish” if you will. Erica eventually develops a friendship with Det. Mercer (Terrence Howard), the cop investigating the string of murders, not knowing Erica lays claim to them.

The story and themes here are by-the-book but elevated by yet another superb performance by Foster. While I wish she would attempt playing roles besides “woman under duress,” I can’t say she’s not good at it. Here, she gives another incendiary, gripping performance, one that deserves a much better movie built around it.

The chief problem here is that in terms of moral culpability, the movie wants to have it both ways, and when it finally comes time to make a decision, it chooses the most offensive, wrongheaded one possible. Though Jordan goes out of his way to acknowledge the slippery slope of revenge—after almost every act of vigilantism, Erica spends 10 minutes moping about it—the movie is not as morally conflicted or ambiguous as it would like us to think.

The scenes of Erica acting out her rage and vengeance are shot in such a tense, exciting manner, that when my audience cheered her victims’ executions, their immaturity wasn’t solely to blame. Though at first I thought they were forming their own irresponsible conclusions, as the film went on, I began to see Jordan wants us to get excited and joyful at Erica’s string of murders. Despite the vague attempts at moral ambiguity, by the time Erica calls herself a “supercunt” to an assailant, it’s somewhat clear where the filmmakers stand on her activities. The proceedings would be far less insulting if the movie either reveled in its standing as a revenge thriller or dealt frankly with the guilt and doubt that comes with it—by doing both but featuring far too little of the latter, it tries to have its cake and eat it too.

What represents another missed opportunity is making a point of Foster’s gender and its rare prominence in this genre, and then doing almost nothing with it. Though there are shoehorned-in lines like “Women don’t do this” and cops repeatedly (and obviously) calling the unknown vigilante “he,” for the most part this screenplay seems like it could have just as easily been written for a man. And while New York City obviously has its fair share of criminal activity (Erica says, “It’s horrible to fear the place you once loved”), our protagonist’s coincidental and consistent running into life-threatening crimes becomes increasingly implausible. Hell, even Batman needed a signal to tell him where crimes are going down.

But the screenplay’s biggest disappointment is in the handling of Howard’s character. The film goes out of its way to establish him as a certain kind of guy, and then has him act wildly out of character at the film’s conclusion to allow for maximum generic crowd-pleasing. Nicky Katt gets a few laughs as Howard’s wise-cracking partner, but one wishes Jordan drew a line in the sand on comic relief. Katt’s presence is welcome, but other “humorous” touches—like a geeky witness who speaks of Erica’s “Kate Moss titties”—are not.

It’s a shame the film falters so badly in the script department since Foster’s performance is superb and Jordan’s filmmaking shines throughout. Though the movie may be little more than a paycheck for him, he doesn’t use that as an excuse to slack off. The initial attack sequence, as well as Erica’s subsequent revenge scenes, is visceral, disturbing and strangely exciting (admittedly with the aid of extra-loud sound effects).

“The Brave One” is relatively familiar, though entertaining, for most of its running time, but the film’s ending (which I won’t spoil) pushes it into a distastefully unsavory realm. It would almost be excusable had the film not previously pretended to be something weightier than the mindless, logic-free crowd-pleaser it so desperately longs to be.

I suspect “The Brave One” will be a sizable box office hit, but the only genuinely surprising thing about it is that James Wan’s exploitation-homage “Death Sentence” turned out to be a significantly more thoughtful and penetrating meditation on revenge.

Oscar Potential: Best Actress (Jodie Foster)
I don't think Foster will actually make it in as one of the nominated five actresses-- this is a really dense year, competition-wise-- but she has a definite shot, and certainly this film's only chance at a nomination


Blogger Jamie said...

You're pretty amazing.

Just sayin', is all.

12:27 PM  

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