No matter how much lipstick you put on the pig, in the form of an accomplished, Oscar-winning star and an Oscar-nominated director with art house credentials, The Brave One remains an exploitation movie at its heart. This distaff Death Wish is extremely well-written and, not surprisingly, superbly acted, but it cannot avoid the simple fact that it appears to have been written to pander to our collective need for vicarious vengeance against all the forces of chaos that we feel are outside our control.
Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) is a New York-based radio personality. While it’s never stated explicitly, there’s no way she’s not on public radio. Listen to the opening monologue and you’ll know what I mean. One night, she and her doctor fiancé, David (Lost’s Naveen Andrews), are out for a walk with her dog in Central Park when a wrong turn leads to a brutal mugging in which she is beaten to within an inch of her life and he several feet past his.
When she awakens, she’s little more than a basket case and a shut-in. When she finally works up the nerve to venture outside, director Neil Jordan expertly crafts a sequence that makes her own neighborhood feel like an alien planet. The off-kilter camera angles don’t stop until Erica takes the fateful step of buying a gun from a street dealer. Suddenly, she seems to be, if not her old self, then at least feeling like she’s back on solid ground.
Through a series of coincidences that are necessary for a movie like this but nonetheless a bit hard to swallow, Erica finds herself in the midst of a couple of brutal street crimes, one in a liquor store and another on subway train and leaves a few very bad people dead on the pavement.
Detectives Mercer (Terrence Howard) and Vitale (Nicky Katt) are assigned to investigate the shootings are and quickly connect them wonder if they have a vigilante on their hands. Mercer, who’s in the middle of an acrimonious divorce, is approached by Erica for an interview. He remembers her because he was on duty the night of her mugging. The two of them strike up a tentative relationship but he’s initially unaware that the wounded, guilt-ridden Erica is the vigilante he’s looking for.
Despite the fine performances and expert directorial hand, we are still faced with a story constructed to manipulate up into rooting for Erica as she evolves from quavering victim to a panicky accidental vigilante and starts actively hunting those she feels are in need of a little street justice, including the untouchable drug kingpin against whom Mercer has been trying to make a case.
I don’t know if casting Jodie Foster as an armed avenger on the same New York streets that Travis Bickle walked in her first major film thirty years ago was a deliberate move, but her first killing has some echoes of the bodega shooting in Scorcese’s film. I also can’t help but shake the sense that her second killing on the subway was purposefully constructed to evoke memories of the Bernhard Goetz incident. This film seems content to play into the urban liberal stereotype of the armed citizen as one bad day away from a shooting rampage.
Whatever the intent of the story, it can’t be denied that the craft on screen is first rate. Jodie Foster gives a vulnerable, affecting performance. She’s not slumming like she was in Flightplan. Terrence Howard is every bit her equal. I’m beginning to think of Howard as Cuba Gooding, Jr. without the bad career choices.
I guess it’s perfectly acceptable to express my admiration for the expertise with which this movie was assembled right alongside my queasiness over its thematic elements. Foster’s wrenching moments of self-doubt and guilt over her actions don’t make me feel any better about rooting for to blow away another punk.