Saturday, February 9, 2008

The Brave One

Director: Neil Jordan Starring: Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard, Naveen Andrews, Mary Steenburgen, Nicky Katt, Jane Adams
Running Time: 122 min.

Rating: R

**1/2 (out of ****)

When The Brave One was released into theaters this past September you may remember it was surrounded by a little bit of controversy. This controversy didn't involve the story, which tells of a woman who resorts to vigilantism when her fiancée is brutally murdered, but rather the movie going public's indifference to it. Citing the film's box office failure, studios started releasing statements that they'd no longer produce projects with female leads.

So that's what it was. Thinking back through all the awful movies I saw in 2007 I should have realized they all had one thing in common: a woman starring or co-starring in them. They also had actors, writers and directors but forget about that. I don't even know why these women are acting to begin with. Especially that Jodie Foster lady. Didn't she win an Academy Award or something like a hundred years ago? I don't even remember. And she must be getting up there in age too. It's no wonder this movie flopped. It couldn't have possibly had anything to do with the screenplay, which has gaping holes big enough to steer an ocean liner through or that everyone is burned out on these silly revenge films. No it's because the main character was a woman. That's Hollywood for you.

Had the narrow-minded studio execs looked closer they would have found many reasons why this film wasn't successful, the least of which is Foster's performance. I took some heat for bashing another revenge film from 2007, the much beloved Death Sentence, complaining it didn't have the conviction to explore the psychological implications of the violence it gruesomely depicted. The Brave One doesn't have that problem and is the slightly superior of the two as the script does actually contain some ideas rather than just depict a senseless murder rampage as fun.

Unfortunately though, while it gets the big details right and the lead performance from Foster is serviceable, it relies too much on contrived circumstances to prove its point. It also has an ending that unintentionally sends a strange message and will leave you scratching your head. It's an interestingly flawed film that tries to fuse art house sensibilities and psychological drama with an eye-for-an-eye thriller. The results are occasionally compelling, but mostly idiotic.

Foster is New York City radio host Erica Bain who, if the scenes here are any indication, bores listeners to death daily with her modulated voice on an NPR-style program centering around everyday life in The Big Apple. Everything in her life seems to be coming up roses until a nighttime dog walk in the park with her devoted fiancée David (Lost's Naveen Andrews) turns deadly when they're savagely beaten by three thugs. David loses his life while the severely injured Erica survives after spending weeks in a coma. Upon regaining consciousness she finds herself unable to cope with the psychological trauma the assault has caused and loses faith in law enforcement to bring the perpetrators to justice. Without a license to carry a firearm she obtains one illegally for her own protection. The longer she carries it the more the term "for her own protection" becomes open for interpretation.

A feeling of empowerment and vengeance overcomes Erica when she's in possession of the gun and it's something the movie and Foster depict very well. What the movie doesn't depict as well is Erica accidentally stumbling into one criminal situation after another and is put into a position where she can kill people without anyone noticing. I know New York isn't exactly the safest city in the world but it is a bit of a stretch to believe it's so bad that every time she walks out the door she just happens to be thrown into a situation involving rape, mugging, robbery or murder. It seems at every other street corner is an opportunity for Erica to brush up on target practice with her new firearm. I criticized Death Sentence for a lot of things but at least Kevin Bacon's character had a goal and purpose that moved the story forward. Here the entire film is composed mainly of coincidences and accidents manufactured by the script to hammer home the point that something "just isn't right" with Erica. And just in case we still didn't get the message, Foster's sleep inducing voice-over narration helps further clarify it for us.

The biggest contrivance of all may be the character of Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) with whom Erica strikes up a close friendship when they run into each other at a crime scene and she interviews him for her show. You'd figure this Mercer guy, who at first seems pretty bright, would be immediately suspicious that this woman he knows is an angry victim of a brutal crime is stuttering and sweating with nervousness in his presence and spends her free time hanging around vigilante crime scenes. I can get past the fact Erica isn't acting rationally, but I can't get over that this guy could be that much of a dummy. It seems to take him forever (or at least way too close to the end of the film) before he becomes even slightly suspicious of her insane behavior. And of course he's your typical movie cop with a chip on his shoulder going through a rough divorce, making us feel as if the character is a stereotype and we've seen this film a million times before.

To his credit, Howard leaps over these hurdles to deliver a very strong performance that distracts us from that. But even he has a tough time overcoming the stupidity of the screenplay. The movie takes a redeeming turn in the third act as the relationship between Erica and Mercer deepens and he's put in the position of choosing between the duty to uphold his badge and his loyalty to a friend. Without giving anything away I'll say that the ending comes completely out of left field and doesn't play by typical Hollywood rules. It's also borderline insane, making you re-think what the true message behind this entire movie really was to begin with. I'm not sure it completely works but I'll at least give it credit for being surprising and different.

The film was directed by Neil Jordan, who made the preposterously overrated The Crying Game in 1992, a film more remembered for its laughable "big twist" than anything else. He takes a similar artsy fartsy approach to this revenge tale, which causes problems. The movie doesn't seem to know what it wants to be as it teeters between action thriller and a more low-key exploration of the human psyche. There's a strange, disturbing montage at the beginning of the film with David and Erica that would have been more suited for a soft-core pornographic video release than this film. There's also a scene where Erica rambles on insanely on the air during her radio show and no one, including her boss played by Mary Steenburgen, feels the need to do anything about it. The scene goes on. And on. And on. How any respectable radio station in America would let this woman on the air in her mental state is beyond me. Too often Jordan and the script just strike the wrong notes for the material.

This won't rank among Foster's best performances but she does a good job depicting the mental anguish of this woman and no other actress would have been able to do it better. I appreciated that the film was actually interested in exploring the motivations and consequences behind vigilante violence but was confused by the title. I read an interview with Foster where she said essentially the same thing. Who, exactly, in this movie is "BRAVE?" And therein lies the contradiction that underscores the problem with the entire film. And if Erica really wanted to punish people a far more effective way would be to force them to listen to her radio show.

No comments: