I saw THE BRAVE ONE over the weekend and was totally moved by it – moved in all directions at the same time.. it’s way too well-acted for exploitation ala DEATH WISH or DIRTY HARRY… but the whole audience was cheering for some of the violent revenge moments, including myself. I like films that turn you against yourself, and this succeeds as well as the last one that did so for me, the Al Pacino-starring MERCHANT OF VENICE from a few years ago, where you cheer on the humiliation of Shylock until the good guys start hurling anti-semitic epithets at him and you realize how you’ve been tricked into turning fascist. Interestingly, a lot of critics were turned off by that film’s lack of a clear cut morality, just as they are over THE BRAVE ONE.
I’m no neo-conservative, but I do dislike being talked down to by any film or person, such as being spoon fed someone else’s idea of “morality.” If you wander over to the review page on Rotten-tomatoes for this film you’ll find as interesting a cross-section of film critic mentality as could ever be, with some savvy critics “getting” the concept of moral ambiguity and others blanching at what they fear will turn this country into a trigger happy NRA mecca (more than it is already). Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer notes that “The Brave One isn’t sure what it thinks… At the film’s inconclusive conclusion, the filmmakers strand Erica and Sean in the moral twilight.” The comparisons to Taxi Driver are inevitable, especially with Foster as the star, but critics, such as the Sun’s Michael Sragow–are eager to praise Scorsese’s film while noting that Jordan’s lacks soul.
It’s not that I disagree, but if you read Manny Farber’s in-depth analysis of TAXI DRIVER (written shortly after the film’s initial release) you can read a lot of the same criticism, the inconsistency of characterization, moral ambiguity, how De Niro’s character, for example, changes from scene to scene, from a moronic obsessive to a smooth-talking lothario, etc. Similar criticisms are leveled at Foster’s character here, who is a shaky mess of nerves and regret by day and Dirty Harriet by night. Farber is savvy enough to see this inconsistency as part of the film’s effectiveness, what makes it unique. Modern day film writers with a certain class of reader in mind have to apparently pre-masticate rather than just tell if the films worth seeing (it is — just in the opening scenes, the naturalistic, playful rapport between Foster and her soon-to-be-dead boyfriend blows half the romantic comedies of this past decade clean out of the water).
I think the film is keyed into the milieu of the 1970s much more than these critics may realize. I also think that if TAXI DRIVER came out today instead of 1976 these same critics would be bashing it the same way they are bashing THE BRAVE ONE now… hindsight is 20/20.
Another interesting aspect of the film is its sensitive handling of the race issue; fans of TAXI DRIVER will remember that there’s a bitterness towards African Americans running through the film, but in order to deflect some of that, Jodie’s pimp is played by white boy Harvey Keitel. BRAVE ONE reverses this move by casting British-Indian hunk Naveen Andrews as Jodie’s beloved, murdered lover. This deflects red state knee-jerk reaction since he’s promptly beaten to death (not implicitly for daring to love a white woman) as well acting as an a priori diffuser of blue state criticism over the inability of her and Terence Howard to have a genuine love affair (when surely if Howard’s cop were white they’d be tearing up the sheets at some point). Meanwhile, in a scene where two black thugs harass a kid on a late night 7 train, the presence of an old black man and his grandson telling them to knock it off and getting harassed themselves shows that crime has no race card, or something.
I don’t mention that stuff as a criticism of the film or Hollywood’s ginger sidestepping of race issues, but just think it’s interesting – a very thought-out and even-handed approach to appeasing all markets, which is what TAXI DRIVER sort of failed to do in that less PC time. With such careful casting, the tensions on display in THE BRAVE ONE are less didactic, and implicate the viewer-particularly the American viewer–by poking at the red and blue state soft spots in each one of us. Dove or hawk; white, brown, black or green, we’re all messed up killers inside.
Jordan has waded into this murky water before -particularly in MICHAEL COLLINS and in its way, THE BRAVE ONE reflects on the violence of Ireland as well as America. Foster quotes D.H. Lawrence in the film (“America is a land of killers” or something like that), giving another outsider viewpoint of America as, just as say, Cronenberg does in A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, to which i think this film compares. This film is worth seeing because it’s well-crafted and will get you to think and realize just how much of a monster you really are, how much we all are. Run back and watch TAXI DRIVER again at your own peril. Jordan has stayed an interesting director and Scorsese now takes his orders from Leo, who you can bet will never let himself be morally ambiguous. If you doubt, witness Leo’s constant and dull remorse over playing the crook in THE DEPARTED or his saintly Howard Hughes, or his tiresomely “nice” lad in GANGS OF NEW YORK and you see just how far Marty has let his star lead him astray. Jordan and Foster meanwhile plunge straight into the heart of darkness, where morality fades to gray and all that’s left is the beating of its hideous heart.