In a nearly quarter-century career spanning a dazzling array of genres, Neil Jordan has made several masterworks and a number of pictures that fascinate despite their flaws. The Brave One—starring Jodie Foster as Erica Bain, a New York City radio host who turns vigilante to avenge a beating by three street thugs that put her in a coma and killed her fiance—occupies a unique place in his career. It’s his first really bad movie—silly, confused, pandering, and in places, loathsome.
The Brave One’s problems have nothing to do with the professionalism of its cast or crew. There are no performances I’d call inadequate, and at a craft level, the film boasts a number of striking touches—notably its imaginative sound design, which makes the heroine’s post-attack paranoia more specific by tying it to her talent, and Phillippe Rousselot’s widescreen photography, which is distinguished by some of the best quasi-subjective Steadicam shots this side of a Brian de Palma movie. And the performances are mostly sharp and memorable, from Naveen Andrew’s brief but touching turn as Erica’s fiance to Terrence Howard and Nicky Katt as the bantering detectives investigating Erica’s killing spree, down to Victor Colicchio and Zoë Kravitz, whose brief but vivid appearances as a pimp and his captive whore spark fond memories of Jordan’s first classic, Mona Lisa. Yet the movie is dishonest in a way that only thumb-sucking liberal Hollywood prestige pictures can be. It pretends to “complicate” the issue of revenge by making its lead character female and spending a good part of the picture’s running time dealing with the physical and emotional aftermath of her fiance’s death (the best and truest part of the movie; as in The Accused, Foster displays acute sensitivity to a victim’s psychic tremors). But at the same time, The Brave One indulges in many of the same dramatic and political short cuts as the supposedly more lowbrow revenge pictures to which it thinks itself superior.
Erica’s nighttime wanderings—which fuse the vigilante-as-social-id trope of the original Death Wish and the pathology of real-life Taxi Driver wannabe Bernhard Goetz—invariably place her in tense situations (witnessing the shooting of a female liquor store clerk by a vengeful white man, a subway intimidation spree by a couple of loudmouthed black teens, and so forth). That Erica often seeks out potential trouble and wills it into bloody reality by hiding her fear and baiting her quarry is a great touch; it jibes with the psychology of volatile troublemakers, and depressed people whose suicidal tendencies translate into externalized fury (groups that often overlap). But at the risk of overgeneralizing, I don’t think the random-shooter business tracks with Erica’s gender. It seems more characteristic of a man who suffered violence at the hands of other men, felt emasculated as a result, and started prowling the streets hoping to get his balls back.
When Nicky Katt’s character, Detective Vitale, quips that “Women kill their children, husbands, boyfriends…shit they love,” we’re supposed to smile ruefully at his reductive thinking, and at Detective Mercer’s ultimate realization that the street avenger is a woman (a deduction that certifies Mercer as Erica’s kindred spirit, and her equal in sensitivity). But Vitale’s quote underlines the falseness of the whole movie, which wants to put a fresh, bankable twist an a familiar genre while being all things to all viewers. Jordan’s movie aims to consider revenge in a rather lofty, rhetorical way, while at the same time presenting Erica with an army of deranged or degenerate shitheels that she can kill with a clear conscience. The movie is a weird amalgam of Hollywood liberal PC cliches and right-wing talk radio’s greatest hits. Erica’s fiance is an Englishman of Indian descent, and the gang that beats Erica’s fiance to death appears to be racially mixed. But the biggest burst of applause at the Manhattan screening I attended came at the end of a scene where two black teens (whose menacing minstrelsy recalls the “I don’t be got no weapon” scene from Hollywood Shuffle) harass a skinny white boy and a law-abiding black man and his daughter, then threaten our heroine with a knife and demand sexual service. (Note to punks everywhere: before you ask a strange woman for a blow-job, first make sure she’s not armed.) The Brave One wishes to divorce its vigilante plot from anxieties about race and class, then exploits those same anxieties when it wants to get a rise out of the audience—a have-it-both-ways approach that may be described as “complex” by critics who want to give a beloved star and director the benefit of the doubt.
As a whole, the movie is a mess, in that earnest, well-intentioned way that’s the hallmark of “serious” Hollywood movies released between September and December. Erica’s essays doubling as narration make The Brave One’s debt to Foster’s breakthrough movie, Taxi Driver, explicit while inviting unflattering comparisons. Foster reads Erica’s Ivy-league-grad-pondering-the-mean-streets prose earnestly, and the movie sanctifies it with stylized slide-show imagery. This approach leaves the impression that Jordan and his screenwriters (Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort) expect us to take Erica’s observations at face value—as straightforward indicators of the film’s viewpoint on Erica, her hellish ordeal, and the city she inhabits. It’s impossible to overstate what a huge mistake this is. Erica is a trite, cheesy writer, and her borderline-sotto radio voice comes off as an unintentional parody of the National Public Radio house style: “This American Death.” (At some points, her “I’m gonna talk softly because I know you haven’t had your coffee yet” delivery evokes the ” Schwetty Balls” sketch from Saturday Night Live).
One of the many characteristics that makes Taxi Driver complex and durable is its unreliable narration. The combination of disturbed cabbie Travis Bickle’s pulpy voice-over (“Someday a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets”) and Martin Scorsese’s sensuously noir-ish, highly selective illustrations of a purgatorial city of lost souls and devils tells us that we’re seeing things mostly through Travis’ eyes; Robert De Niro’s deliberately stilted, unemotional reading clues us in on the sociopath’s detachment from his own fathomless anger. Narration and picture/sound combine to create richer meanings than could be achieved individually. But in The Brave One, we’re not just supposed to take Erica’s Pete Hamill-goes-to-graduate school routine seriously and pretend that the movie isn’t critiquing itself so we won’t have to; we’re supposed to be stunned by the raw honesty of her insights, most of which are as banal as Travis’ diary entries yet inexplicably presented as proof of Erica’s deep sensitivity. When she intones, “It is horrible to fear the place you once loved” and “Each death leaves a hole that needs to be filled” and “Anyone can be a killer,” I can’t deny the essential truth of her observations. But I also want to jump into the movie and advise her to save them for her shrink.
The movie threatens to become interesting when Erica claims her trauma by turning herself into a terrifying avenger figure even as she starts discussing her attack and recovery on the radio. But rather than investigate this narcissistic impulse, much less criticize it, The Brave One treats it as perfectly natural, even noble, and it makes sure to separate Erica from all the less thoughtful people out there who would misread or oversimplify the vigilante or project their own concerns onto her. After Erica’s boss, Carol (Mary Steenburgen), sees how the ratings jumped when Erica started talking about her ordeal on the air, she orders Erica to start accepting call-in comments for the first time in the show’s history. What follows is a scene that should either show Erica the folly of her actions or inspire her to crank up the gunplay and get more public feedback and push the movie into the realm of black comedy. Instead, the scene is mainly concerned with reassuring us that Erica is more thoughtful than the doofuses that listen to her program. (One caller links the vigilante’s rampage to the Bush administration’s urge to invade Iraq after 9/11, proving, if nothing else, that the screenwriters have been reading their Sunday arts section. Another caller covertly expresses a modern filmmaker’s nostalgia for a hellish 1970s New York where a revenge killer would make a certain grim sense. “This city was turning into Disney World,” she says. “At least we got our street cred back.”) The juxtaposition of Erica working through her feelings on audiotape and her attackers videotaping their handiwork promises a movie that’s interested in violence-as-performance, and attuned to the ways that media have infected our perception of life. But both elements are deployed in a mostly functional way—respectively, to tell audiences what to feel about Erica’s predicament, and to give Erica proof positive of the attackers’ identity so she can hunt them down.
The Brave One is riddled with nonsensically motivated and poorly thought-out characters who bear little resemblance to real human beings. (Howard’s divorced sad-sack Detective Mercer, who becomes fascinated by, and perhaps infatuated with Erica, is a particularly egregious example; he seems awfully slow-witted for a hotshot crime fighter, and his climactic decision, which turns him into a hardboiled urban version of a Magical Negro protecting the white star, is just dumb.) And while the film is effectively directed, it’s not visually, rhythmically or structurally imaginative enough to defend itself against complaints of implausibility by claiming to be a non-realistic or “dream” film (as Mona Lisa and The Crying Game absolutely were). Jordan’s movie is only dreamlike in the sense that it meanders and repeats itself. It’s neither lurid enough to qualify as troublesome, you-know-you-want-it revenge pulp, nor smart enough to earn the “thought-provoking” label it seeks. When the film dispatches Mercer to grant Erica absolution and suggest that she was doing a job that Mercer could not do himself, the The Brave One’s veneer of complexity melts away, and we’re left with a movie that seems to believe that what’s good for Erica is good for New York—that society ultimately benefited from what an NPR show might call “Erica’s journey.” It’s vigilantism as therapy.