Neil Jordan’s The Brave One is insipid, audience-pandering trash, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t unspool with the confidence of a classic thriller. It’s artificial, shallow, contrived, and as manipulative as a stump speech before disabled veterans, but it never lets the viewer off the hook. As such, it works when it should fail, and on whatever side one falls regarding the morality of vigilante justice, there’s a piece of wisdom in there for everyone. Cowards will take the easy road, claiming that Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) is a symbol of extremism gone too far, and that her immersion in revenge signals her betrayal of decency and humanity. “She’s become what she hates,” they’ll cry, forgetting entirely that Bain only kills people in the act of committing crimes themselves, or, finally, those responsible for her coma and her boyfriend’s violent death. So yes, she is legally guilty of murder in the first degree again and again, but her “victims” have all the depth and sympathy of ducks in a shooting gallery. They are stripped of any real identity, given mere snarls and hostile gestures as “traits”, and hit their marks until they are dispatched with full audience participation. It should surprise no one that by the end, viewers were applauding as if swaying in time with a rock concert, and though instinctively embarrassed at such mindless worship, I eventually saw their point. Why not kill violent sociopaths, rapists, muggers, and pimps? As long as Uncle Sam is staying out of it, who am I to interfere with an aggrieved American’s right to feel whole again?
The first sign of trouble is in Erica’s relationship with David, her devoted boyfriend. Her future husband is not only a doctor, but exotic, handsome, wise, and, from all appearances, the best lover since Don Juan. After all, during brief snippets of memory (he’s already dead by this point), he manages to arouse a confirmed lesbian, and I’m pretty sure he’s using his penis. We never get to know this man, but he’s perfect to her, and that’s all we need to see. Anyone in possession of more complexity would complicate our response, and we are simply not allowed to question the righteousness of her mission. Brutes took away the greatest human being who has ever lived, and only a morgue teeming with fresh victims will set things right. On the night of his death, he’s even so gracious as to make out with Erica in the park, sharing a blissful stroll with their perfect dog. They hug, talk about wedding announcements, and make eyes as if in that first blush of romance. And if Hollywood history has proven anything, it is that the illusion of perfect bliss must immediately be followed by heartache, sadness, and brutal violence. Just like marriage. Only there’ll be no wedding day for these two. Instead, the couple have the misfortune of meeting up with a gang of booze-sipping toughs, all of whom are vaguely ethnic, but could easily be confused for skinheads in a certain light. At first I thought they were white, which prompted me to mumble something about political correctness gone wild and the fear on the part of the filmmaker to risk charges of racism. But then the scoundrels retreated to Spanish Harlem, and I sighed with relief. Yeah, like you’re not thinking the same thing.
When Erica awakens from her unconscious state, she is greeted with the usual loneliness, frustration, and anger of the recently widowed, though she manages to return to her job as a radio host. Her program, “Walking New York”, is one of those dry NPR type shows where poetry substitutes for actual substance, and the tone of her voice manages to leave listeners with the impression they’ve been treated to something other than sheer rambling. But as her opening narration reveals, there’s an inner tension with the city she loves, only the depth of that estrangement is yet to come. She seems to suggest that New York was a better town when it buzzed and chirped with crime, eccentricity, and madness, but she’d likely say the opposite now. She’s even surpassed Rudy Giuliani’s old clean-up program, this time actually killing the squeegee men. As usual, though, those who romanticize grit and grime usually do so from air conditioned offices, and Erica is no exception. Now that she’s had her liberal condescension fully tested by a random attack, she can come out as a reactionary, trigger-happy conservative. It’s what we all are under the covers as the shadow of fear inches ever closer, and the instinct to “correct” merely needs the right opportunity to be unleashed. She’s D.H. Lawrence’s image of America made flesh: hard, stoic, and all-too-much the killer.
As expected, the film has the usual police incompetence (they’re “working on it,” when Erica knows damn well the killers won’t be caught anytime soon), the press conferences, the defensive detectives, and even the man of the law who at first befriends, then suspects Erica, all because he’s vulnerable too, what with the recent divorce and all. He’s played by Terrence Howard, and while well-acted and convincing, it’s nothing more than a stock character in search of a little dignity. He’s there to tease us with romantic possibilities, only to be pop up for the “over coffee speech”, where he tells Erica that if he knew a friend was guilty of a crime, he’d still do the right thing and put them under arrest. By the end, that promise is put to the test, which he fails with flying colors after letting her go free and staging the final bloodbath to look like “gang warfare”, even taking a bullet for good measure. He’s a good cop, but he loves this kind of justice more, as I suspect some cops do when the shades are drawn. Sure, they hate being embarrassed by more efficient civilians, but there’s not an officer alive who hasn’t hoped for a free pass regarding scum removal. You can see it in Mercer’s eyes; he admires the gal for her balls, and it’s not as if she’s a serial killer targeting kids or anything. At the point when he knows it’s her (a contrivance on a phone call leads to his epiphany), he has heard her story, seen her face now lined with pain, and he’s in a forgiving mood. In his mind, the final killings bring closure, but her closing narration reveals something else entirely. A sequel? Not likely, but here’s hoping she continues to roam the streets and subways of her fair city like a perverted Robin Hood, taking and restoring in equal measure, always with one eye on fair play.
So who does Erica kill and why should we care? After buying a gun on the black market for $1000, she just happens to be in a liquor store when some loony, estranged husband comes in, screams at his Vietnamese wife about child custody (she’s working the register), and plugs her in the chest and abdomen. Erica witnesses the murder, but tries to hide behind some shelves. She plays hide and seek for a few minutes, then, sensing an opening, fires three times through some bottles and bags. He’s hit once in the throat, and she flees the scene, pausing only to collect the surveillance tape. She was nervous as hell throughout, but now having taken a life, she’s not about to let unsteady hands ruin her aim ever again. The transition from scared rabbit to Dirty Harry is unconvincing to say the least, but it fits just the same. One of the big lies — and great applause lines — of these movies is in making killing seem easier than it really is. Sure, the first one is the hardest, but is the path from humanitarian to hard-ass that unencumbered? We’d like to think so. Erica then moves to the subway, where she’s able to emulate Bernard Goetz in even more heartless fashion. Still, she shoots the one kid because he has a knife to her throat while he casually inquires, “Have you ever been fucked by a knife?” His disposal is a no-brainer. The second kid? Yeah, he’s a sassy Negro and, we come to learn, has a rap sheet a mile long, but Erica could not have known that. He was unarmed and retreating, so he was shot purely for sport. While Foster’s wax façade betrays nothing, we are led to believe that with each killing, she’s a bit more depraved than before. If this is her dehumanization, I see no evidence to justify that conclusion.
Next, Erica guns down a sleazy pervert while in his back seat trying to lure away a stoned prostitute. So yes, thirty-plus years later, she has doubled back and pulled her own Travis Bickle. But rescuing this “little piece of chicken” is just as difficult, and she has to not only dive out of the way of the man’s car, but blast his ass through the windshield, an act which causes his car to flip over in a ditch. Again, the deck is outrageously stacked, as we couldn’t possibly care for these low-lifes who make hasty departures for hell. Or is that the point? Make the “bad guys” so repellant that we’ll have our noses rubbed in the fact that yes, even our worst offenders deserve a fair trial. I agree in principle, but Erica’s just so darn cute with that pixie haircut that, well, the Constitution seems so quaintly abstract by comparison. Then, before the final piece of the puzzle falls into place, Erica butchers a sleazy con-man who exploits women, imports drugs, and just might have killed his ex-wife. Mercer’s been after the bastard for years now, but the law can’t seem to touch him. Erica pays him a visit, slams a crowbar into his skull, and pushes him over the edge of a parking garage. It is during this killing that Erica’s secret is revealed to Mercer, as he hears the ding of an elevator when she claims to be at home in bed. She had called him to seek comfort, but it’s really more of a confession; a desire for approval at what is being done in his name.
At last, when Erica is able to locate those who actually killed her sweetheart — thanks to a pawned ring — she sets the theater on fire with callous efficiency, as bullets enter eyes, hearts, and heads, all to the approval of every paying customer within shouting distance. By all appearances, this was the feel-good hit of the year, leading me to believe that if Americans are ever to be enlisted for any great cause, they must first be promised at least a hand on the switch. Erica gets the address by bullying one of the killers’ girlfriends, but even this reeks of the implausible, as I know all about the no snitching rule that dominates such areas. But to send it by text message, knowing full well that it would spell his doom? Not bloody likely, even in a fantasy world where such a chick isn’t pregnant or hauling around the visible reminders of her recent affirmation of Catholic doctrine. But it’s all about reaching the climax, and even that requires the standard scene where the hero can’t get into the security building but, despite the late hour, someone just happens to be walking out, and Erica is able to slip through the closing door. Remarkably, as she eyes the men, she also sees her long lost dog, who is still in great shape, if only because it’s not a fighting breed. Mercer, having followed his hunches, which led him to this same ghetto complex, confronts Erica as she’s about to blast the third and final scumbag. They shout, plead with each other, and sweat profusely, until at last Mercer does the reasonable thing and hands her his gun with which to take care of business. And then the wound, the planting of the gun, wiping off some prints here and there, and Erica is free at last. A hostage only to her new found lust for bloodshed. She’s earned it.