It hurts to see Neil Jordan’s name attached to something as deplorable as The Brave One. Jordan is no stranger to mainstream moviemaking, but even his unfairly disparaged In Dreams had a personality identifiable as his own. That film’s hieratic style was a delirious expression of its main character’s psychological turmoil and, to a certain extent, a reflection of Jordan’s frustrations as an artist at the time. But The Brave One, which suggests something tailored for people who buy their CDs at coffee shops and approve of how Rudy Giuliani pimped out Times Square to the Disney Company, is a hack work whose bad habits seem as if they couldn’t possibly have been cobbled together by someone responsible for such exquisite works of art as The Butcher Boy and The End of the Affair.
You can’t talk about The Brave One without bringing up Ms. 45, yet it seems unnecessarily cruel to hold the riches of Abel Ferrara’s classic B, about a mute woman who is raped twice (!) in one day and subsequently enacts revenge on any man who annoys the shit out of her, against this lousy corporate facsimile. Erica Bain (Jodie Foster), who hosts a program called Street Walk that is more inexplicable and badgering than a Carrie Bradshaw column, goes to a posh gallery installation early in the film where she relishes in New York City’s grungy past, and she subjects her listeners to vague, blatantly condescending observations about the decline of the city’s authenticity and dearth of interesting human-interest stories. It’s almost as if she wants to restore a lost form of cultural expression, through really she’s just a mouthpiece for the arrogance of a film that supposes its za za zoo revenge fantasy represents some sort of pinnacle in feminist conversation.
The film assumes a pretense of realism it goes to perplexing lengths to sabotage. Erica’s full name alone suggests a superhero’s alias—it’s that plastic—and her exchanges with her producer (Mary Steenburgen), who is wary of Erica returning to work so soon after her vicious beating, are as cartoonish as Peter Parker and J. Jonah Jameson’s back and forths at The Daily Bugle. But a Spider-Man film can get away with that sort of thing; it is, after all, based on a comic book. This is to say nothing of Erica’s emergence from the scene of her first crime, taking off her jacket as if she were about to take off into the sky above the film’s fantasy Big Apple and circle the planet a few times—or, at the very least, grab hold of her monster cock and unleash a primal scream. I say cock because the filmmakers curiously and happily exploit Foster’s butch mystique, presenting her to us as if she were the first person with XX chromosomes to handle a gun.
Let me be clear: The idea of The Brave One is intriguing, except it’s executed in a Haggisian manner, insulting our intelligence by doing all the critical processing for us. Note how Erica’s radio program takes off after she begins to comment, anonymously and in hushed cadences, on her vigilante behavior. For the first time in the show’s history, people are allowed to call in and ask questions, and every call Erica receives conveniently gives expression to every possible moral stance one can take on the avenging angel’s cause. (It’s a ploy as contrived as the video imagery Paul Haggis uses to drag out In the Valley of Elah, the week’s other significant cinematic insult.) Caller number one heralds the mystery killer, number two is disparaging, another one brings Iraq into the conversation, a fourth uses her platform to wag her finger at the media, and a fifth thinks it’s all very sexy! People are talking about her everywhere: Inside an elevator, the nervous Erica overhears people talking about how the vigilante should go after Donald Trump, at which point some woman squeals, “I suppose you agree with lethal injection!”
It’s easy to point out that audiences must endure the worst—and most telling—line in The Brave One not once, but twice: “It’s not beige, but vanilla.” Piteously, much of the film’s dialogue is delivered in similarly terse sound bytes—garbage like “I’m not a face, just a voice” (a reference to how Erica’s radio gig grants her some measure of anonymity) and “You’re the good guys, but why doesn’t if feel like that?” The latter line, uttered by Erica to a pair of police officers who interview her after she wakes up from a coma and learns that her fiancé, David (Naveen Andrews), is dead, is all you really need to know about the film’s bird-brained moral analysis. In one scene, a neighbor sympathizes with Erica’s murdering spree because the older woman comes from some scary, unspecified country where lots of black people ostensibly live and young boys are given weapons and asked to kill their parents. What are we to glean from this presumptuous, racist scenario—that Erica, if given the chance, could clean up Darfur or Sierra Leone?
There is exactly one good scene in the film, in which Erica is taken by NYPD detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard) to the hospital room of the girl, Chloe (Zoë Kravitz), she saved from a lowlife pimp in some slick-looking, ostensibly dangerous part of the city. Sean suspects Erica might be the city’s vigilante hero, Erica knows that Chloe can identify her, and Chloe believes she should protect Erica for having her back. The exchange of a necklace becomes a sweet expression of solidarity, and in spite of the silence in the room, the three characters come to understand each other’s moral conundrum entirely through body language. But this sort of subtle, elegant storytelling is rare in the film. Too often, The Brave One grapples with crisis in the manner of bad television: A seemingly endless scene inside a diner between Eric and Sean, in which Erica cops to being the vigilante without actually saying so, suggests one of those ridiculous moments from, say, an Afterschool Special where some kid with a sexually transmitted disease goes to one of her parents and says, “My friend—her name is, umm, Jane—has gonorrhea, and she’s afraid to get it checked out, and now she’s worried that she might have given it to her boyfriend. What should she do?” Talk about beating around the fucking bush.
Ms. 45 was gripping because the post-traumatic stress that overwhelms Zoë Lund’s Thana is channeled into a gun and then directed at all men, regardless of whether they’re actually trying to hurt her. Violence seems to empower her, but her thrill is illusory—and it’s this nuance that gives the film its weird poignancy. The Brave One exploitatively leads Erica to slaughter, then gives its tacit approval to her revenge killings (the noxious title isn’t the only thing romantic about the film). Gender has a lot to with the story, but only in a sexist sense: Everyone presumes the city’s new superhero is a man (yawn!), and Erica’s murdering spree only targets dicks (pimps who keep their hos sedated with drugs, punks with priors who steal iPods and force grandfathers to simulate oral sex on them, and so on). Too cowardly to actually show its main character “getting off” on the blood she spills, the film settles for presenting Erica’s crisis as a lame psychological dry heave—something she will learn to purge from her system with the help of a good man.
Late in the film, Foster is seen running through a maze of alleys, bumping into corpses along the way. The actress makes Erica’s confusion feel palpable, but is the character actually perplexed by the lunacy of her situation or is Foster herself thrown by the story’s flailing gender musings? The Brave One‘s psychological hysteria is in keeping with the hip, counterproductive beliefs of Dr. Phil, with Erica’s tricked-out travels through streets and hallways evocative not so much of a victim’s mental strain but of what it must be like to be trapped on a sinking cruise ship. Foster plays Erica as she does all her victims (in “lockdown” mode), curiously putting on lipstick after one of her crimes. (Does this mean she will get a breast enlargement after the next one?) Violence in the film is given an insulting “feminine” gloss, nowhere more insane than in the scene where Erica and her fiancé are brought to the emergency room. Doctors cut through the couple’s clothes to get at their wounds, and this carnage is contrasted with a tastefully shot fuck between Erica and David that occurred in the past—set to Sarah McLachlan! Not since Cruising has sex and violence been so dubiously paired on screen. For sure, there are no shades of gray here—it’s just vanilla.