The Brave One

| September 15, 2007

Neil Jordan’s The Brave One showcases Jodie Foster as Erica Bain, a woman who takes justice into her own hands after her fiancé is murdered. Having once played a child prostitute saved by a vigilante in Taxi Driver, she now stars as a vigilante herself. The film co-stars Terrence Howard as a detective that befriends Bain, and as expected, both Foster and Howard deliver brilliant performances. Despite a pummeling by critics, The Brave One offers audiences a powerful look inside the psychology of victimization
Following just weeks after my viewing of Death Sentence (my review is available on this website), I am perhaps unfairly predisposed towards Jordan’s film. Whereas Death Sentence turned Kevin Bacon into a head-shaving, leather-wearing action hero with nary a moment’s pause to consider whether killing people may not be a good thing, The Brave One (title excepted) continually questions the validity of Bain’s vigilante activities. The film can be viewed as overly ambiguous, cheaply exploitative, or enticingly complex, but part of the fun is that Jordan leaves the decision making to audiences. Aside from its intellectual/moral considerations, the movie is pretty entertaining, too.
After Bain and her fiancé are jumped by a bunch of hoodlums in the park, Bain buys a gun and coincidentally finds herself in a position to use it when a random guy starts shooting in a convenience store. At first her killing is a matter of mere happenstance–right place, right time–but Bain quickly graduates to premeditated murder. Her victims, however, are always men of a decidedly bad nature–they deserve it, you see.
Whether these men deserve their deaths is not the primary focus of this film, however. Rather, the movie asks what is Bain’s complicity in her own actions? She describes herself as a stranger in her own body, acting in ways she never imagined possible. Frightened of this stranger, Bain wonders, “am I finding [my victims], or are they finding me?” As she describes on the talk-show that she hosts at a local radio station, Bain has discovered what it means to live with fear. But her fear of the bad guys is quickly subsumed by a fear of herself and those that cheer her on.
Screenwriters Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor, and Cynthia Mort use Bain’s job as a clever way to frame the debate. With the vigilante making the front pages of newspapers, Bain’s boss at the radio station asks her to accept calls from listeners wanting to express their opinion of the “person doing the cops jobs for them,” as Bain describes the vigilante. Listener responses range from those who celebrate her violence of retribution to those who reference Iraq as an example of the futility of revenge. More profound than their comments is Bain’s apparent disgust of the very debate she has provoked. Taking comfort in a black and white view of good and evil, Bain lives in the world but detaches herself from it so that she does not have to face a deeper examination of the morality of killing.
There are voices of reason close to Bain. As Detective Mercer, Terrence Howard equates the vigilante with another murderer that police cannot catch: “they both walked away from a murder,” he tells Bain. Even closer to home is the wisdom voiced by her neighbor Josai (Ene Oloja), a survivor of civil war in Africa. Bain admits to this neighbor that she has killed a man, and Josai cautions that “anyone can be a killer,” but finding a way to live after death has touched you is much harder.
If this film fails anywhere, it is with Bain’s lack of response to these two characters. To an extent, Jordan does his duty by presenting provocative images, like crosscutting shots of Bain and her fiancé being beaten with the couple making love, and by complicating Bain’s aura of righteousness. But for those who want a deeper examination of the morality of vengeance killing, The Brave One isn’t quite so brave.
Critics who chastise The Brave One echo each other’s declarations that this film wants the best of both worlds–it a film about a victim getting even that validates her murderous actions even while it questions her right to pursue them. Indeed, at one point a character challenges Jodie Foster’s Erica Bain by saying she has no right to take a life. She screams back “yes, I do” with such anguish and certitude that I was ready to shoot the guy for her.
But isn’t the tension between these two worlds–the validation of revenge versus the necessity of due process–part of the appeal of a film like this? One can question whether the film’s ending chooses a side in this debate, but any movie that gets me thinking and asks audience to leave debating is worthwhile in my book.

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