Movies are built on id. That’s why the bad guys have to die. You can’t grant movie villains a life outside their villainy. Bad guys aren’t there to be human, with a little good mixed-in even with the blackest of hearts; they’re there to stand for all those grievances we can’t address, for every noisy neighbour we might have, for every work colleague who gave us a slight. Movie villains die because, in life, most of us don’t get to kill anybody. The Brave One might flirt with questioning this vengeful need in us, but ultimately it settles for sating it.
Jodie Foster plays Erica Bain, a New York radio host with a conscience. She and her fiancé are attacked one night by nameless, heavily-tattooed psychopaths, and three weeks later Jodie wakes up in hospital, bereaved. There are the cursory flutterings of a police investigation; two detectives come to call, but no arrests are made. Instead, Jodie finds herself increasingly drawn to vigilantism. She buys a gun, learns to shoot, chances on a crime in progress and reacts like Clint Eastwood. Figuring “in-for-a-penny…” she doesn’t stop with one act of street justice. After that, it’s down to the cops to stop her. Because Jodie’s conscience runs empty faster than her ammunition clip.
Terrence Howard has a tough job in this movie. He has to try to say “no” to Jodie Foster. It isn’t his fault the movie loses its nerve. He’s a fine actor and, when the script allows him (as it does for the most part) he delivers a fine, nuanced performance. As in Crash, there’s a wounded manliness to him; as if he knows he’d lose a fist-fight, but he wouldn’t back away from one. He has a way with a line that’s cop-like when playing a cop – tired, seen-it-all, but not closed-off. A lot of actors like the machismo of playing NYPD officers, but very few get the sense of wanting to help people. Howard might not be the reason people come to see The Brave One, but he’ll be the reason they come to see something someday.
The Brave One is Jodie Foster’s movie, and she’s electric, as she always is. I could lie and say yeah, yeah, Jodie Foster… whatever, but there’s no sense downplaying what she does just because she’s done difficult roles before. Erica Bain might not be a role on the same level as Clarice Starling, but Jodie plays her with zest, and anguish, and bloodlust.
Maybe another actress could have done as well, but no other actress has Jodie’s ability to win an audience. It’s not her brains (because Geena Davis has brains) and it’s not her beauty (because every actress has beauty). It’s her decency, I think. There is something about Jodie that speaks of Right – even when she’s crazy. Maybe the reason she wanted to play Erica Bain was to mangle that image. But it’s hopeless. The audience laps up her convictions. Morally compromised she’s meant to be, but with Jodie Foster playing her, Erica Bain can do no wrong.
Neil Jordan, who directed The Brave One, is a man who will work forever on the strength of The Crying Game. I think the theory goes that if you can make a movie with that twist profitable, you’re capable of anything, even if mostly you’re capable of flops. He’s does a commercial job with The Brave One; lets Sarah McLachlan sing on the soundtrack, goes into slo-mo when Jodie offs a perp. It’s not The Crying Game, but then nothing since has been. He elevates the movie above Law & Order, but not quite past Death Wish (though I think the ending has more to do with his producer, Joel “Lethal Weapon” Silver, than it does with him).
The Brave One is undermined in the end because of Jodie and because of us. It’s hard enough for a movie audience to be rational when faced with on-screen crime, but when faced with crimes committed against Jodie Foster, we can’t be held responsible. Although the movie wants us to think twice about the Dirty Harry approach, it stacks the deck by casting Clarice Starling as the enforcer. We shouldn’t cheer. We know it’s wrong. But no-one ever had a fantasy about forgiving somebody.