Last month, audiences were gifted a laughable little pustule entitled "Death Sentence," which effectively made light of human loss and turned rage into a bargain-bin video game. "The Brave One" is a similar story of vigilantism, yet originates from a distinctly higher pedigree of filmmaking talent. Let me put it this way: one director made "Saw" and the other is responsible for "The Crying Game." You do the math.
Erica (Jodie Foster) is a radio show host reeling from the murder of her fiancée by a pack of vicious thugs during a romantic Central Park night. Unable to process the tragedy, Erica mummifies her emotions, buys a gun, and looks to escape her horror through isolation. However, the outside world won't permit that, and when violent crimes are committed right in front of her, she puts an end to it with her own brand of justice. On the case is Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard), who unknowingly befriends Erica while trying to piece together the clues of her crimes.
Now, proclaiming "Brave One" to be superior to "Death Sentence" isn't much of an opinion gamble, but it is of interest to see what a stronger filmmaker can do with the same working parts. Director Neil Jordan is far more curious about the emotional ramifications of Erica's killing spree, positioning her as an evocative raw nerve figure who is constantly at sweaty war with her conscience and trigger-finger impulses. Where "Death Sentence" took a melodramatic low road imagining the personal toll of vengeance, "Brave One," at the very least, makes a pass to seem conflicted by the argument for street justice.
Through Jodie Foster's expectedly layered portrayal of throbbing hurt, "Brave One" has a soul worth following in the New York jungle; the actress latches right on to Erica's nightmare from the first moments of impact. Foster's portrayal is one of tight-lipped observation: Erica silently cramming her troubles deep within, making sure not to spill a drop of her anguish. The performance grows increasingly complicated with the introduction of friendship between Erica and Mercer, which gives Foster wonderful character dimension as the bitter vigilante juggling her ache for human contact with her need for gun-fueled expression. Foster and Howard are an incredible team of actors, and luckily Jordan knows exactly what he has with these two top-shelf talents.
While Jordan has a great sense of Erica's guilt and loss of humanity, he has a thorny time trying to massage a suitable end game for the story. There's plenty of breathing room allowed during Erica's equalizing rampage to keep "Brave One" away from a cheap revenge sentiment, though that line is a blurry one. Through Foster, Erica's killing is met with disbelief and shame, yet the film seems to endorse her actions more and more as it nears an unfortunately ludicrous finale. Perhaps Erica shouldn't pay for her crimes in the classic "Law & Order" sense, but the film is arranged in such a way to suggest the character will be forever tortured, powerless to sate her need for closure for as long as she lives. The movie ends on a more dispiriting note, lustful for audience approval in brainless ways, ultimately ignoring the fractured reality the rest of the film desires so much.
"Brave One" isn't "Death Wish," but there are moments where I could see Jordan giving in to that impulse. What should've been a more ambiguous portrayal of violent desperation is perhaps too underlined by the finale, but Jordan gets enough of the film's critical fragility right to keep the film somewhere in the arena of a recommend.
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