To be quite honest, I’m at a little bit of a loss for what exactly to say about “The Brave One,” the new movie where Jodie Foster plays a woman who, out of her all-consuming grief and fear, becomes a vigilante killer. It’s well-written, has a couple of incredible performances and sucks the viewer into its story. But even though the movie has what I interpreted as a clear moral point-of-view, I don’t know if most audiences will see it in quite the same way I did.
Foster plays Erica Bain, a public radio host, whose show, “Street Walk,” documents the people and places of New York City, which is practically its own character in the movie as directed by the talented Neil Jordon (“The Crying Game,” “The Butcher Boy”). She is head-over-heels in love with her fiancé, played by Naveen Andrews of “Lost.” One night, they take a walk through Central Park when they cornered by a threatening gang of thugs. They don’t even appear to be muggers, but rather sadists, since they actually videotape the encounter. If you’re a “Lost” fan, this scene is especially hard to watch because Andrews’s Sayid character would most certainly turn things around and escort every one these guys to their graves, but all you can do is helplessly watch as he and Foster are nearly beaten.
Or rather, Foster’s character is nearly beaten to death. He doesn’t survive. The loss leaves a hole in her so deep that Erica can barely leave her apartment for months, and she usually just stares into space smoking cigarettes. We know it’s been months because Erica’s facial scars have almost healed by the time we see her attempt to go outside. Once she does, she is paralyzed by her fear of the city she thought she knew so well.
Erica eventually buys a gun on the black market because she doesn’t think she can wait long enough to get a license. Carrying it with her makes her feel safe. She doesn’t seem to think she’ll ever use until one night when she is in a liquor store and witnesses a murder that happens so quickly she doesn’t have time to get out of there. When the shooter tries to get rid of her too, she kills out of instinct. Taking the security tape with her, she skulks off into the night.
You might expect that to be the only murder that the timid Erica commits, but the second one comes easier to her. She finds herself caught in a situation that, while dangerous, she admits to herself could have ended short of death if only she had shown these men her gun instead of using it. After that, she becomes out-of-control and a stranger to herself. At one point, her station manager forces her to do a call-in show, which she has never done and doesn’t fit her show’s style. She becomes even more disgusted when an alarming number of listeners call in to say they support the actions of this nameless killer because he (or she, as it were) is simply taking out the trash, since the people who are murdered are not very savory types.
Erica ends up making friends with the lead detective who trying to solve the mysterious murders by interviewing him about his job. Erica admires Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) for his integrity. As he becomes closer to her and begins to suspect her, their relationship becomes one of the more moving elements in the film.
Foster’s performance is one of the best I’ve seen in a while. Erica’s grief and pain is visceral enough that the audience can feel it in its bones. The way Foster plays this emotion, it makes perfect sense that it would progress into fear, anger and then vengeance. Although of us would not do what Erica does, we completely believe it when she does.
The movie’s dialogue is quite well written, which is particularly noticeable because of Erica’s job. Her on-air essays about the city are good enough to seem like something you might actually hear on a National Public Radio member station. The scene where she speaks on air for the first time after her fiancé’s death and chokes a couple of times before delivering a shaky, uncomfortable monologue about her fear is a thing to behold.
Howard, nominated for an Academy Award for 2005’s “Hustle and Flow,” turns in another excellent, soulful performance. He and Foster make a great team, finding all kinds of new layers to their characters when they share their scenes. Also quite good is Nicky Katt as Mercer’s wise-cracking detective partner.
Unfortunately, Katt’s character is a symptom of what keeps the movie from being as good as it could have been. It’s not that is jokes aren’t funny. They are. The problem is that Jordon does such a good job building a mood and creating a tone, that this sudden bit of comic relief is too jarring. Most importantly, the viewer has spent almost all this time seeing everything through Erica’s eyes and going through her descent with her. Even though the detectives are introduced in an isolated scene early in the film, when the scenes cut to the murder investigation, the movie’s narrative rules seem to die.
There is also the question of why Erica begins speaking with Mercer in the first place. It is never quite clear if she is doing this to learn how close she is to being caught or if she is doing it because she wants to be caught. It’s probably a little bit of both. Even so, once the film is over, the plot development seems at least somewhat contrived.
The most troubling thing about the movie is not the filmmakers’ faults at all, and I’m not offering it as a criticism of the movie itself. Although I thought I was watching a very well-made meditation on grief, fear, violence, morality and ethics, it appeared that most of the audience around me was watching an entirely different. Oh, they definitely enjoyed it, but I’m not sure “enjoy” is a word that ought to be used in conjunction with this movie.
In an interview with Newsweek, Foster defended the movie, saying it shouldn’t be interpreted as a revenge movie.
“This is a genre film,” she said. “It is a thriller. But Erica is wrong. And that’s definitely the point of view of the film: she’s getting sicker.”
Try telling that to the crowd that I witnessed cheering ecstatically as Erica claimed her last victim.
“The Brave One” is rated R. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.