Sunday, September 23, 2007

Some Notes on The Brave One

Last night, on a kind of reviewer's holiday, I paid $13.25 to see a digitally projected screening of Neil Jordan's loathsome new film The Brave One at my local neighborhood theater (UA Kaufman Astoria). According to the blurb on Fandango, the DLS process results in "maximum fidelity: a picture with impressive clarity, brilliance and color and a lack of scratches, fading and flutter," but, to the untrained eye, the screen image looked scarcely any different than in a corresponding analog projection. In addition, the theater's heavy promotion of the new technique and their cynical insistence on having the audience foot the bill forced the viewer to consider the necessity of an innovation designed to make more visible a series of hopelessly bland images that have no business being projected on a movie screen in the first place, let alone through a technology calculated to make these images clearer and more immediate. Perhaps "maximum fidelity" is not to the advantage of Jordan's film. If the aesthetics of mainstream films keep degenerating, it does little good to cover this deficiency with ever "improving" technical developments. What is needed is better images, not more advanced technologies.

The film concerns a radio host, Erica Bain (Jodie Foster), whose show serves as a lament for the old, "gritty" New York, a conception of the city the film suggests still exists just under the anesthetized surface. First Erica and her fiancé are viciously attacked in Central Park, with her fiancé dying from his wounds. Then she becomes a vigilante, turning up the sleaziest imaginable characters in every corner of the city, characters who she unhesitatingly shoots dead. Along the way she befriends Detective Mercer (Terence Howard), the man in charge of the police investigation, with whom she debates the efficacy of the legal approach to justice. At the film's conclusion she tracks down her fiancé's killers and, just as she is about to confront one of them, Mercer arrives, shoots the man himself and (despite having finally unmasked Erica as the vigilante) prepares to blame all her murders on the dead criminals, thus neatly excusing her from her crimes.

Neil Jordan, the man responsible for such lushly imagistic films as The Company of Wolves and Interview with a Vampire seems to have completely forgotten how to craft a film's visual aesthetic. His strategy is to keep the camera constantly moving, an approach that quickly leads to a visual monotony, since the effect is to capture a series of drab, unrevealing images that disappear just before the viewer can register their banality. This strategy may find its justification as an expressionistic device designed to reflect Erica's mental state after the attack, but in order for such an approach to be successful, the images themselves must be clear and expressive, a requirement which Jordan falls far short of fufilling. In addition, he insists on positioning his camera at a forty-five degree tilt for long stretches of time to further suggest the mental imbalance of his heroine, but these sorts of amateurish tricks can't disguise the drabness of what the camera actually captures. On her radio show Erica describes New York as simultaneously menacing and beautiful, but in Jordan's visual conception, the city seems to fit neither description. In addition, his handling of the violent encounters is especially inept. The scene in which Erica and her fiancé are attacked is marred by too much rapidly executed editing and ill-advised cut aways to a series of crude video images being filmed through the handheld camera of one of the assailants, devices designed to mitigate the viciousness of the attack, but resulting (both here and in the later scenes of vigilantism) in an aesthetics of violence which is neither exhilarating nor horrifying (neither justifying nor denying the moral claims of vigilante justice), but like the rest of the film's visual conception, simply bland.

As objectionable as the film is on aesthetic grounds, it is perhaps even more objectionable on intellectual and moral grounds. Intellectually, the film is insultingly vapid. The film's screenplay, despite quoting Emily Dickinson and D. H. Lawrence in a desperate attempt to add intellectual heft to the flimsy proceedings, features dialogue riddled with platitudes and an unhealthy reliance on ridiculous narrative contrivances. Shortly after the attack, Erica enters a local bodega to purchase a soda. No sooner does she enter the store than a man comes in and shoots the cashier, his estranged wife, to death, a situation which provides Erica with the opportunity to commit her first act of vigilantism. The scene explicitly references Taxi Driver, but where the equivalent sequence in Scorsese's film seemed like an appropriate extension of the violent, nightmare world he created, in Jordan's film, a film that hasn't successfully established a corresponding milieu, it just feels like weak plotting. In addition, Jordan too often favors a cheap sentimentality that should be far beneath his talents. When Erica returns to her apartment after the attack, he intercuts a flashback of her kissing her fiancé to the accompaniment of a dreadfully saccharine folk song, a scene which aims at eliciting the viewer's lowest emotional response. Later, in an equally appalling sequence, Erica returns to her apartment to find the wedding invitations she had ordered waiting for her. As she tearfully looks them over, Jordan has his camera linger over the proceedings, milking the situation for every last unearned sentiment, and letting the viewer know at what level he values his intelligence.

Like all vigilante films, The Brave One treads shaky moral ground. The very nature of the genre demands the identification with an individual, often driven by a personal tragedy, who opts to circumvent the inefficiencies of the law and deliver his own illegal brand of justice, a justice that many would define as simply another act of murder. The two archetypal entries in the genre, Dirty Harry and Deathwish definitively established this moral uncertainty and the many films that followed their example have had to take up these same issues. In The Brave One, the question assumes the form of a gentle dialectic that runs between Erica and Mercer with Erica claiming that the vigilante is "doing the police's job for them" and Mercer stubbornly espousing the cause of law and order. But the film is content to reduce the debate to its simplest possible formulation and then smooth over any contradictions with an ending that can only be described as a moral failure. Granted, all vigilante films are morally problematic, but what is disturbing in The Brave One is how untroubled the film seems by its resolution, a resolution that neatly eliminates the law and order side of the debate and supports a whole-hearted acceptance of vigilantism. It is telling that Mercer's decision to shoot rather than arrest the suspect and then blame him for all of Erica's killings resulted in a hearty round of applause from the audience, since the scene is presented with such authority that it is easy for an unreflective viewer to accept the ending as an unequivocal (and entirely satisfying) solution to the dialectic. Rather than establishing a new synthesis, the argument's antithesis (vigilantism) is allowed to carry the day with only the most cursory resistance.

Rarely has a film matched such an uninspired visual framework and inane conceptual foundation to such a disturbing moral program. Aesthetically, intellectual and morally, The Brave One is a complete failure.

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