Title: The Brave One
Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Director: Neil Jordan
Screenwriters: Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor
Starring: Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard, Naveen Andrews
On the strength of The Brave One, Neil Jordan should get the chance to replace Christopher Nolan on the Batman franchise.
What? You don’t believe me? Think that’s film critic snark, do you? Well, snark’s got nothing to do with it. It’s not that The Brave One is something unexpected from high-brow genius Jordan — an intimate, thoughtful character drama, pulled off with the sort of elegance you would expect from one of our most gifted stylists. But the extent to which Jordan allows it to be a vigilante movie, really and truly, with the attendant casual improbabilities and melodramatic turns, is stunning — and shares more with the comic book genre than with either Jordan’s or Jodie Foster’s ouvre. Like M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable before it, The Brave One takes the genre’s conventions (this time with a focus on the judge-jury-and-executioner hero — think Batman and The Punisher — rather than one endowed with superpowers) and shifts them to semi-plausibly occupy the world we know.
It may seem strange to approach a film so concerned with — and smart about — law, justice, and the nature of fear from this angle. But for someone who has dedicated much of his writing lately to the quixotic defense of what some cynically term “genre films” (a moniker I’ve accepted, if only to move the conversation forward), something like The Brave One is a godsend: living proof that talented filmmakers can take these “escapist” plots and turn them into something special. Jordan has managed to create something exciting, haunting and profound.
Jordan’s protagonist Erica Bain (rhymes with “Bruce Wayne”) hosts a cult radio show called “Streetwalk” in which she plays the sounds she records while traversing the streets of New York with a tape deck and a microphone and adds contemplative, wistful ruminations. After she is brutally attacked, and her fiancé murdered, in an irrational crime of rage, the program becomes an outlet to share her disbelief at her newfound fear of the city she once loved and affectionately called home. Meanwhile, she takes to prowling the less posh parts of New York and interrupting violent crimes by killing the perps — an activity that soon earns her anonymous fame in the local papers and a smart, upright police detective (Terrence Howard) on her tail.
The film feels not unlike what we hear of “Streetwalk” — a sad, quiet mood piece that starts writhing and mutating once tragedy befalls its hero. The opening scenes are content with calm, measured verisimilitude — the banter between Bain (Foster) and her lover David (Naveen Andrews) is realistic and touching, the talk of two smart people who know every inch of each other. Jordan doesn’t break stride in depicting the attack, which he films with an appropriately harrowing — if still tactful — forthrightness. It is immediately afterward, in a heartbreaking montage juxtaposing the desperate emergency room attempts to save David’s life with the lingering memory of the two making love, that Jordan enters the trickier realm of Erica’s horrorstruck, damaged mind. His camera loses its solid footing and starts swimming, undulating across the sets and locations; the narrative starts operating under a sort of dream logic, the perspective constantly shifting (a subplot about an unrelated murder gets an inordinate amount of screentime) and weird coincidences gradually starting to dominate. The film’s rhythm is so hypnotic that it became difficult to stay actively engaged with Jordan’s ideas as he does his best to lull you into a trance.
Bain’s vengeful exploits aren’t the stuff of naturalistic arthouse drama. Her stunts are increasingly daring and increasingly unlikely — I doubt that even someone looking for trouble can get embroiled in so many violent crimes in the span of a few days. But in a truly gutsy move, Jordan and his trio of screenwriters embrace the improbability of the narrative progression, purposely sensationalizing the events. When Bain’s deeds gain notoriety and she starts maintaining what is essentially a secret identity (she repeatedly muses that what happened to her turned her into a different person, a stranger even to herself), we get the sense that the filmmakers are toying with genre conventions, and doing so with surprising respect.
The Brave One is ultimately about the relationship between law and justice, and how the integrity of the former threatens and is threatened by the satisfaction the latter offers. Jodie Foster gives her best performance in years, tough and vulnerable; her anger and frustration is heartbreaking. But the movie is more remarkable for its style, and its uncompromising, fully committed treatment of its story. It’s Jordan’s most interesting film since The Butcher Boy.