Try as you might, you cannot shake The Brave One. It sticks with you, digging down into your own scarred psyche and touching on every pain, problem, and possibility your current life holds. Calling it an estrogen-laced Taxi Driver or a female fashioned Death Wish misses the point. Certainly, there is vigilantism and the immediate, ill-considered impact of such street style justice. But there is something much deeper here, something that goes to the very nature of being human. When confronted with the possibility of letting those obviously guilty to instantaneously pay for their actions, or to simply go free, which way does your moral compass point? This movie not only asks the question of what would you do, it then goes a step further to question whether you can live with yourself, and what you’ve become, afterward.
With a title that suggests the start of an epic poem or perhaps a fairy tale, The Brave One is a startling achievement for stars Jodie Foster and Terrance Howard, and yet another notch in the growing artistic oeuvre of Neil Jordan. On its surface, it’s a standard revenge flick, the story of a young woman torn apart by violence and loss. But it’s also much more than that. It’s an excuse for empowerment in a post 9/11, Red State/Blue State, Yellow Alert existence. It’s Bernard Goetz bobbed up and beautified. It’s every bad cliché about the criminal element crammed into a single symbol of white flight disgust. Compare it to Foster’s first Oscar nominated effort or the shallowest of Charles Bronson’s deathly designs, but the final statement argues for our identification as an audience and our sense of satisfaction as a citizenry. That’s why it’s manipulative and ethically unstable. It’s also why this becomes one of the best, most deep and disarming films of the year.
At the heartbroken center of this story is Erica, a maturing Manhattan gal who spends her days “walking the city”. As part of her public radio show, our heroine captures the tantalizing tone poems that make up her frequently baffling burg, and she translates them into thoughts of endearment, of specialness, and space. She’s madly in love with her doctor boyfriend David, and the two share a kind of intimate peace that veils them in a shroud of sensed security. All of that changes one fateful evening. David is beaten to death by a nameless gang of thugs, and Erica is left in a coma. Once she awakens, she’s unable to cope with her loss. Days are spent drifting from dawn to darkness. Nights are lost in cold sweat visions of her violation. Deciding the only way to reclaim her life is via personal protection, Erica buys a gun.
Thus begins her decent into a kind of unfathomable urban madness. A freak use of the weapon creates a combination of physical unease and psychological satisfaction. Another use and Erica begins to change. Jordan’s main theme here is the notion of transformation. He uses the character to explore dozens of life altering events. Within the span of a few short weeks, our heroine loses her lover, her impending marriage, her inherited in-laws, her plans for the future, her stability within her insular world, the career she counted on (it’s still there, but in fragments), her physiological wholeness, her freedom, her faith in her fellow man, her naiveté, her understanding – and last but certainly not least – her principles. When she pulls out her handgun for the first time, it’s as if a foul force of nature has taken over. By the end of the movie, such an action becomes disturbingly instinctual.
Mirroring this fate in flux conceit is Erica’s “nemesis” – the cop on the beat who intends to take down this vigilante scourge. The tender Terrence Howard seems, at first, an odd choice for the role. He doesn’t bring his bad mother trucker game from Hustle and Flow, nor is he trying to be a basic by the book policeman. Instead, we sense a similar emptiness in him, a hollowed out place where his ex-wife, his career, and his belief in justice used to be. When he lies to Erica (they meet several times throughout the course of the narrative) he feigns a more or less mild interest in what she does. Eventually we learn he is a true fan, someone who bought into every fanciful facet of her New York as Neverland experience. In many ways, The Brave One is a film about growing up. It’s about learning that the boogeyman really exists, and that in almost every situation you can imagine, it’s impossible to completely avoid his tainting touch.
Though it sounds slightly sexist to say it, The Brave One then becomes a movie about “manning up”, about taking the responsibility for your own being on your less than established shoulders. The reasons why the performances here are so flawless (Foster alone deserves another Oscar, especially since she’s better here than in either of her previous award winning turns) is that Jordan makes his heroes all too humble. Even when she’s sensing the building bravado of pointing a loaded pistol at a sleazy pervert, or reclaiming a small part of her past by tracking down her original assailants, Erica is not a champion. Indeed, in Foster’s fascinating way, we realize how desperate and destructive each act of reciprocal violence is. When shown, the killings are bloody and very brutal, overemphasized stylistically with amplified sound and slow motion fervor. Jordan is announcing the importance of each act, signifying how they will come to mold our lead, as well as underscore every event that comes afterword. Erica’s actions are not without consequences. Whether they’re ever linked to her is another story all together.
Howard is also looking to connect, and the lack of fairness in this – or any other – world is what binds him so solidly to these crimes. In some ways, he’s as much an enabler as someone trying to stop the spree. His conversations with Foster are filled with emotional fissures, gaping holes of humanity looking for emotional mortar to fill them. We see the union building between the pair, the sheepish grins they share in each other’s presence, the critical game of cat and mouse they play as hunter/prey and victim/vindicator. Some will miss all this subtle subtext, viewing the relationship between Erica and Mercer as a RomCon conceit without the bravery to take it to the next level. Others will see it as service to a story that doesn’t want to turn Jodie Foster into a cosmopolitan version of Henry Lee Lucas. But the fact is, we are dealing with a bond built on vicarious role reversal. Erica is doing what Mercer can’t. He’s finding the meaning his now joyless job once held. Similarly, she’s wielding the power a policeman holds. It can’t replace David, but perhaps, the sense of strength and purpose can begin to close the wound.
This is monumental, moving stuff, the kind of film that folds you into it cinematic sphere of influence and never lets go for the entire running time. Long after it’s over, the circumstances and situations keep playing over and over in your head. Indeed, if you really want to see the difference between mere professional filmmaking and a near masterwork, just check out James Wan’s journeyman take on similar subject matter, Death Sentence. There, Kevin Bacon turns into a skin-headed psycho, a man so overwhelmed with gratuitous grief (his entire family is slaughtered) that he turns to wrath as a means of marking time. But when Foster fires her weapon, and feels the release and the revitalization that occurs, we are seeing something more than just payback. We are witnessing the awakening of something dark and disturbing. Once unleashed, however, it can never be contained. Perhaps that’s why bravery is required – both to live with it, and through it.