Jodie Foster, vigilante? The veteran actress has thrived in a variety of violent scenarios in her career, but her role in The Brave One is something new for the star of Panic Room, The Silence of the Lambs, The Accused, and Taxi Driver. Accompanied by the thoughtful Irish international filmmaker Neil Jordan, she ventures into the murky terrain of the urban revenge fantasy, where it’s easy to get lost.
Foster’s anguished performance as crime victim Erica Bain is one of her finest, certainly her strongest in years. But treading in the fictional footsteps of Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson’s role in the Death Wish series), Dirty Harry Callahan, and Travis Bickle is a strange journey for her, and ultimately for us. She and director Jordan (Breakfast on Pluto, The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire) take us to places we’d probably rather avoid. They’re the same places Bronson, Clint Eastwood, and Robert De Niro visited in their respective revenge outings, but somehow when Foster takes the law into her own hands, rights wrongs, and spills blood, we can’t file it away in the action genre bin quite so easily.
Perhaps it’s Erica Bain’s prosperous middle-class female perspective. More likely it’s due to Foster’s power as an actor, combined with the provocative screenplay by Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor, and Cynthia Mort. Her reluctant trip down the righteous-retribution rabbit hole is a bit scarier than someone else’s, not because of what she does — she summarily executes thugs — but because of what she becomes and how she arrives there. It isn’t as if her teenage hooker from Taxi Driver, Iris Steensma, grew up determined to finish the job her mixed-up cabbie friend Bickle started, to wash away the scum on the streets of New York. It’s as if the goofy, likable kid from Freaky Friday ended up with the job.
People who despise spoilers should stop reading now, because there’s no way to discuss Foster’s character without talking about the details of her story.
Foster’s characters in other movies have reacted violently to menace, but they did so more or less within conventional moral boundaries. In The Brave One, New Yorker Erica, host of her own NPR-style talk-radio show, loses her male lover, David (Naveen Andrews), to a trio of predatory young men one night in an unprovoked attack, during which she is viciously beaten. As an added insult, her dog is stolen. She wakes up three weeks later alone in a hospital. Amidst her lengthy period of mourning and recuperation, a change comes over her. We’ve been shown that she has always enjoyed creating audio essays she calls “stories of a disappearing city” for her radio show — but now that she has joined the fellowship of crime victims her solitary walks through New York’s streets take on a different meaning. One day she walks into a gun shop she had seen depicted in an art gallery, and comes away with a 9mm automatic. It’s an unregistered handgun, $1,000, no questions asked. Suddenly she becomes a hunter. As Erica explains it to herself in one of many introspective lines of dialogue: “Inside you is a stranger.”
In a series of moving scenes, Foster carefully etches the touchstones of Erica’s gradual transformation: dealing with David’s things, the concern shown by her sympathetic downstairs neighbor, Erica’s abrupt “fear” speech on air, lonely wanderings with her tape recorder, and then, inevitably, those two goons on the subway. The ones who wouldn’t stop. She clearly recoils from her inner avenging angel (“Why doesn’t somebody stop me?”) but refuses to talk about it with friends. Police detective Sean Mercer (played brilliantly by Terrence Howard) reaches out to her, but at first he is put off by her profession — he doesn’t want publicity. Later, as the bodies pile up and news outlets pick up the Bernhard Goetz scent of vigilante justice, Mercer and Erica develop a cautious relationship neither of them really wants. Something symbiotic.
Director Jordan, always a sucker for troubled loners dealing mayhem, reportedly came to The Brave One as a hired hand for producer Joel Silver (a frequent collaborator with the Wachowski Bros.), but there’s nothing workaday or routine about the lethal chemistry he nurtures between Erica and Mercer, or between Erica and her newfound mission. The ghost of Taxi Driver hangs in the humid city air. Jordan pays tribute to Martin Scorsese’s groundbreaking 1976 shocker in at least two sequences — one of them a wondrously staged replication of Travis Bickle’s “ice-breaker” slaying of a convenience store stickup man, here recast as the elimination of a brutal, wife-beating slob, Erica’s first murder.
We’re reminded of Foster’s gallery of intimidated women: trained killer Clarice Starling, more afraid of herself than of bogeyman Hannibal Lecter; rape victim Sarah Tobias in The Accused; and child prostitute Iris Steensma. Erica Bain is the most pathetic of the lot because she never went looking for trouble. It found her. “I killed a man tonight,” the utterly shocked Erica admits to her neighbor. The reply: “Anyone can be a killer.”
But not everyone is Jodie Foster. The dismay Erica displays at her own violence, the twisted “bargain” she makes with the unwitting policeman Mercer, her almost-gothic predilection for the city’s dark corners, established before she was attacked — these deep, troubling character touches, plus Jordan’s gift for bringing out the lovable side of psychopaths, lift The Brave One a head higher than the other revenge flicks on the market these days. The exhilaration she gets from ridding the world of crack-addict johns, rat-packing thieves, and other meanies can’t last forever, but that’s a subject for another movie.