Nobody can explain why a doctor in Glasgow set himself on fire in a truck laden with explosives — a sophisticated, Western-educated person. We’re in unknown territory, and people genuinely don’t know what to feel. I think even people who are to the left in the United States are confused, and there’s a lot of fear, a nameless fear. That’s part of what the movie is exploring.
–Neil Jordan, LA Weekly (5 September 2007)
There’s always some reason
To feel not good enough.
— Sarah McLaughlin, “Angel”
Terribly titled and audaciously plotted, The Brave One offers another chance to watch Jodie Foster piece together a complicated, determined character, again trying to make sense of a chaotic world. This time, as radio talk-essayist Erica Bain, she’s alternately steely and scared, restive and perplexed. While such characteristics have become typical of Foster’s recent work (say, her turns as resourceful, protective mothers in Panic Room and Flightplan), Erica also recalls one of her earliest and most haunting roles, as a child, young, kohl-eyed Iris Steensma.
At first, the connection to Taxi Driver, across so many years and movies and, of course, John Hinckley, seems startling. But there it is: when Erica appears, post-trauma, in short hair and a patterned t-shirt, her smallness emphasizing her toughness, she could be Iris 30 years on. For an instant, when her shoulders slouch just slightly and her eyes dart to avoid a gaze, she could even be Iris, looking warily at her frightening would-be savior Travis Bickle across the table in the diner where he’s buying her breakfast. But Erica is not Iris. She has no savior, frightening or otherwise. She is instead, her film proposes, an inversion of Travis born of her own moment. Much as Travis’ post-Vietnam war New York mirrored him, violent, filthy, and infuriating, Erica’s reflects her. It is lost.
The conceit is poetic, but unsustainable. This much is clear as soon as The Brave One opens, offering a glimpse of Erica’s pre-trauma existence. She and her perfect fiancé David (Naveen Andrews) make their way to Central Park to walk their perfect dog, anticipating their wedding and the pleasures it will bring his mother. Suddenly, the idyll is broken, when the couple is viciously beaten by stereotypical-looking Latino gangster-kids, lured into a tunnel for no reason except to jumpstart the plot. When she awakes from her coma, Erica learns David is dead, and she is beset by fear.
The film amplifies the drastic changes in Erica’s sense of self (“I miss who I was with him”) and place with point-of-view tricks: the lens tilts and seems to warp as she tries to walk out of her apartment for the first time, the soundtrack is smudgy, shadows engulf her. She’s oppressed by flashbacks to her former life (David pays guitar in excruciating, faceless close-up; their sex is a blur of cupped breasts and eyes closed, too much Sarah McLaughlin). Her new anxiety, however, soon hauls her out of her depressive reverie. The cops working her case appear less than interested (“You’re the good guys. So how come it doesn’t feel like that?”), and Erica is transformed. When she hears the precinct desk clerk recite the same soothing line to multiple victims (“I realize how difficult this can be”), she realizes she’s alone and afraid and it’s just too bad.
In that moment, the movie changes too, from a subjective contemplation of her grief and loss to an erratic vigilante pic. Though Erica continues to inspect her feelings, recording city sounds (her mic pointed like John Travolta’s in Blow Out) and her own voice (telling her what she believes, that she is broken and it’s the city’s fault), the movie pushes in other directions, its imagery recalling Travis’ glances at the city’s many “others.” Like Travis, Erica buys a gun illegally, and before you can say “Kevin Bacon,” she’s caught up in a shooting inside a convenience store. Also like Travis, she makes a split second decision, shooting the shooter before he can kill her, the unfortunate witness.
NAVEEN ANDREWS as David Kirmani and JODIE FOSTER as Erica Bain
Here’s where The Brave One goes loopy — which is not to say it goes bad, exactly. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s worth thinking about. Where once Erica waxed poetic on her radio show (“Street Walk”) about New York’s variety and surprises, the home it provided for Eloise, now she laments the menace she sees everywhere. “It is horrible to fear the place you once love… I always thought that fear belonged to other people, weaker people. But when it touches you, you know it’s been there all along.” The city is inside her, she becomes it. Wherever she walks, she confronts a punk, a pimp, a thief, or some other degenerate is lurking. As she shoots more bad guys — all guys, all stereotypes — she grows more self-possessed, walking away from her murders with her shoulders back, now wearing a cool leather jacket over the t-shirt that so exposed her vulnerability.
But while the film’s generic tilting is discordant, Erica’s journey remains — quite perversely — captivating. At times, you’re just astonished at the movie’s abject absurdity. When Erica crosses a dark street as her voiceover intones, “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me,” you have to wonder just how Emily Dickinson fits into Erica’s refitted ethos. The movie evokes “suicide bombers” and the war in Iraq to mark its terrible-world context, but Erica’s place in it, as both bomber and victim, can only remain hectic. She’s a war zone unto herself.
As much as she reviles the violence around her, Erica finds a movie vigilante’s solace in it. She even rescues her very own Iris. Erica happens on Chloe (Zoe Kravitz), drugged out and bruised, in the back seat of a car, when the idiot driver solicits Erica with the corniest of deserves-to-die lines: “Hey baby.” More articulate than Travis (she talks for a living, after all), Erica makes her own despair and anger abundantly clear: holding her gun on the villain’s temple, she promises, “I’ll be your last super-cunt.” The ensuing mayhem combines memories of Thelma and Louise with Dickinson again (“Who the hell are you?” gasps Chloe. “Nobody,” asserts Erica). It’s like someone Googled “angry women” and mashed all the bits together.
That’s not to say Erica doesn’t have doubts. And quite unlike Travis, she expresses them to “others,” who pop up rather too strangely and conveniently. Most preposterously, Erica is comforted by a neighbor lady who as much as sanctions her violence, with wise head-nodding and handy nursing skills, attained, the lady says, “Back home,” where “they give young boys guns.” While the lady stitches a gash on her arm, Erica confesses that she killed a man. “Anyone can be a killer,” assures the lady.
TERRENCE HOWARD as Detective Mercer and JODIE FOSTER as Erica Bain
Slightly less magical, Erica’s other new best friend is the cop on her trail. Careful, decent Mercer (Terrence Howard) still mourns his recent divorce and wants more than anything to stop a murderous white executive, who traffics drugs and guns and now has custody of a stepdaughter who “knows something.” Mercer shares his pain with Erica, she doesn’t quite admit her own sins, and they develop a disturbing friendship, based on outright lies and unspoken agreements to lie. In itself, the relationship isn’t so different from any other. (Who knows what remained unsaid in Erica’s romance with David? It ended too soon and is now too preserved in sealed-in-amberish flashback images even to guess.)
Still, the detective-vigilante connection raises questions, as they admire one another but also, by definition, must be adversaries. She taunts him on her radio show (noting that “someone else is doing his job”), but he comes right back, having discovered the error of his first assumption. “I’ve been looking for a man with a gun,” he smiles — in a diner — but “It turns out to be a woman with a grudge.” The utter nuttiness of this equivalence aside, Mercer here underlines the film’s primary hook, the apparently awesome specter of a female vigilante who is not, by the way, a mother. While The Brave One works hard to motivate her, she’s still so unthinkable that only the smartest cop in sight can name her.
But for all the hubbub about the sensational girl shooter, The Brave One is almost more interesting for its flaws and omissions. The movie doesn’t think through how vengeance works, what makes it seem right or righteous. (That appears to be your job.) Erica’s own sense of it is mixed: her newly confident walk is juxtaposed with her concern that her “hands don’t shake” when she fires her weapon. It’s as if you’re watching the effects of all that abuse and violence on 12-year-old Iris, now an adult who sees payback as costly but necessary. Travis also thought he was on a moral mission to “clean up” the city. But he was only one element in a process, part of the depravity, desperation, and fear he so despised. Erica says she feels like a “stranger” to herself, but her movie makes her conventional, even correct, in her assessments of everyone else. And that’s more frightening than Travis ever was.