Plato wanted poets and dramatists banished from his republic because he believed they reveled in emotion to the detriment of reason and citizenship while coaxing audiences to join in the wallow. The only time I’m tempted to agree is when I see a vigilante movie. Films such as Death Wish, Dirty Harry, and Rolling Thunder prey on our fears that criminals will destroy our loved ones and us; these films put us through excruciatingly detailed scenes of violence so that we will feel righteously vindicated when Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson guns down street scum. If a great tragedy fills us with fear and pity while struggling to a finish of hard-won transcendence, the vigilante film merely fills us with fear and anger; rather than purging us, it encourages our rage to boil and overflow and yet somehow persist, like incurable heartburn. The better crafted a vigilante movie is, the greater its immorality.
What’s interesting about Neil Jordan’s The Brave One is that it yearns to be thoughtful while twisting our guts, wants to be psychologically complex while telling us that some criminals are scumbags who deserve to have their brains blown out with no interference from the law, urges us to feel tender concern for the delicate soul of its damaged heroine even as she does everything Charles Bronson does in Death Wish. It’s too confused in its intentions and craftsmanship to be effective, but it does succeed in creating a whole new subgenre: the vigilante chick flick.
Its plot closely follows the trajectory of Death Wish. Bronson played an architect. Jodie Foster plays a public radio commentator, since it’s surely more titillating if the killer begins as a white-collar liberal rather than a blue-collar type. Bronson lost his wife and daughter to housebreakers, while Foster loses her fiancé to muggers in Central Park. Neither one had been a gun owner, but both soon acquire revolvers and track down lowlifes in the more sinister bypaths of the Big Apple. Both protagonists, unidentified, are acclaimed and deplored in the media, which, in The Brave One, assumes that the vigilante is male. Tracking down both protagonists are honest, dedicated detectives who can’t help feeling some admiration for a shooter not bound by the law (and detective Terence Howard becomes sexually attracted to Foster before he discovers her culpability).
Some critics have faulted The Brave One for the plot contrivances that repeatedly steer the heroine into dangerous situations so that she can start blasting away. This isn’t entirely fair, though near the start of Foster’s rampage there may be one too many coincidences. But soon she is deliberately putting herself in harm’s way; character is fate, after all. Anyway, serendipitous danger comes with this genre’s territory.
No, it’s neither violence nor plot manipulation that makes this movie more than a little nuts. Rather, it is its psychological shallowness and ethical equivocation. When Bronson murdered muggers, the bloodshed was justified, in the usual brutal Hollywood way, by the scumminess and sadism of the criminals. “He’s doing it for you,” the advertising for one of the Death Wish sequels proclaimed. But in The Brave One, though Foster’s prey are just as repulsive as Bronson’s, the real justification for slaughtering them is that it’s a form of therapy that helps our heroine rise above victimization. She even regains her poise and popularity as a radio personality by focusing on the subject of street crime.
A wise old neighbor from Rwanda counsels Foster, “There’s plenty of ways to die. You have to figure out a way to live,” and, “Each death leaves a hole ready to be filled.” Of course she’s urging Foster to get her act together in a positive, life-embracing way, but the audience is forced to take the advice ironically since each time our heroine listens to these philosophical pearls, she hits the streets to make a kill, and every time she kills, she gets stronger, more confident, more professionally successful. In this movie, murder offers more self-improvement than yoga classes or a session with Dr. Phil.
But wait a minute. Don’t we see Foster, after each of the killings, brooding in her apartment, having flashbacks to her assault and her fiancé’s death, and even to the latest killing she’s just committed? Doesn’t she vomit after the second killfest? Indeed. So doesn’t this indicate that Foster is in torment and that the murders are destroying her soul?
Well, it certainly would if we were shown some significant change, for better or worse, in her subsequent actions. But we’re not. Foster may knit her brows pensively while the photography and music get moody and noiresque, but soon she’s at it again, packing her pistol and scouring the shadows. There’s no interaction between those soul-searching close-ups and the unhesitatingly murderous deeds that follow. I think all those moments of pseudointrospection exist merely to give Foster’s character a free pass into our bleeding liberal hearts. She suffers, therefore she’s good. And, if you have any doubts about what the moviemakers really feel about the vigilante killings, check out the ending of the movie: three more corpses, Foster walking toward a bright new dawn, the supposedly righteous detective who loves her now fully informed about her hobby and willing to aid and abet it, her newly recovered pet dog (stolen by the muggers) trotting by her side, and some dopey folksinger wailing away on the soundtrack about the need for succor “when the night is so unkind.”
All this from Neil Jordan, the creator of the superb films Mona Lisa, The Crying Game, and The Butcher Boy, plus the interesting adaptations of The End of the Affair and Interview with the Vampire. I hope he’s ashamed of himself.