Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Brave One: This time, it's personal, or maybe it's generic, or maybe neither

When The Brave One cropped up last fall I was knee deep in TIFF and barely noticed it. It was only later that I began to notice how wildly conflicted the critical response was and my curiosity grew. The film’s genealogy as a vigilante thriller is of course impressive, with executive producer and star Jodie Foster in a sense assuming the Travis Bickle role from Taxi Driver, the film in which she played the pubescent prostitute who becomes Bickle’s personal salvation project.

The Brave One cements its kinship with Taxi Driver in its use of voice-over, the evocative New York location work, the convenience store-killing initiation scene, and, at points, even its score, which features surges of nearly atonal brass and strings. As well, there’s the protagonist’s unusual sensitivity to the ever-shifting city via the dictates of their occupation: from the cockpit of his cab, Bickle primarily saw and smelled New York, where Foster’s Erica, a public radio broadcaster who makes field recordings and comments on New York’s evolution on her show, primarily listens to it

Filmic heritage aside, what’s most interesting here is basically the cultivation of Erica’s sense of internal transfiguration. Having survived the brutal assault that killed her fiancé, her isolation and despair compounded by the apparent absence of any other friends or relatives in her life, she feels that she’s literally become someone else, someone now capable of cold retribution. This discovery of one’s basic, killer instincts was effectively mined most recently in A History of Violence, but the connection between trauma and response is more immediate in The Brave One, with Erica going from victim to vigilante in a matter of weeks. Her transformation is quickened by her sudden proximity to random acts of violence, and, while it feels like something of a baldly magical conceit, I liked this element too, the idea that once violence touches you, you suddenly start to see it everywhere.

So far so intriguing, but where everything completely falls apart is in the final act, which climaxes in one of most astoundingly stupid, most grossly misguided finales in recent memory. How could the presumably reasonably intelligent people working on The Brave One possibly agree to such a pathetic resolution? I was hoping that the making-of featurette on Warner’s new DVD might enlighten us.

Basically, the film’s producers explain how Roderick and Bruce Taylor’s screenplay was initially a straight-ahead genre piece, but when Neil Jordan signed on as director they knew it could be so much more and another writer, Cynthia Mort, was brought it to ostensibly smarten it up. Jordan himself says he actually wanted to make a genre film, something in keeping with the work of say, Sam Fuller or Don Siegel. Indeed, these testimonies finally begin to add up: in the end, The Brave One is caught between being exploitation and something more reflective, and suffers profoundly from this indecision.

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