No one does Hollywood anguish like Jodie Foster. If Jamie Lee Curtis once held sway as the Scream Queen, Foster’s reign as the Anguish Queen has yet to sunset. It percolated in her child-star days with The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane and Taxi Driver, roared to the surface with her turn as a rape victim in The Accused, then exploded into Anguished Ass-Kicking in films like The Silence of the Lambs, Panic Room and Flight Plan; the anguished, perplexed put-upon female Takes Back, man. While I wouldn’t qualify Foster’s thespian production as ranged, I’ll concede that her acting has a solidity to it that more or less satisfies the demands of her roles. No one does Jodie Foster like Jodie Foster. Her slight frame — buffed yet vulnerable (especially in later films) — always seems on the verge of either a tremble or a torque; her brow furrows in a way that suggests inner philosophical animadverting whenever she’s under challenge; and — more and more often — you just know she’s packing and ready to use it with thin-lipped, regretful determination.
Given this, Foster must have seemed like the perfect choice to play the vengeful victim in Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, a by-the-numbers revenge tale designed to remain safely formulaic thanks in part to Foster’s patented, ever so familiar brand of bravado. There are no narrative surprises here, and Foster’s presence guarantees that audiences will encounter a cozy, known entity on this particular screen. Her anguish has been spit-shined to a high gloss over the past couple of decades, and so have the Anguish films she’s carried; while Silence refracted a grainy quality (as psychological, perhaps, as it was cinematographic), lines, corners and surfaces in Panic Room, Flight Plan and The Brave One are shiny-blue and taut with that Hollywood-issued incandescence that not only seems to have replaced all the bulbs in studio lighting technology, but daylight itself. Jordan’s once-surreal style has been banished altogether in his latest film — organic forms are now geometric, and even the Jordan darkness which pervaded the edges of objects in his earlier movies has become limited and generic.
Despite the lack of novelty, fans of the revenge genre (count me in) stand a good chance of enjoying themselves, or of at least having their attention held for two hours. It’s not the most galvanizing revenge romp out there, but Jordan — deploying his tropes from within the confines of Hollywood formula — doesn’t drop the ball. Don’t look for a new twist on the old strudel; it’s the endings of revenge films that vary slightly, and which make or break a movie, and Jordan selected one of the standard wind-downs to go along with his very standard story. He’s made sure the violence is take-no-prisoners visceral, but he also pays due attention to the interplay between the vigilante, Foster’s Erica Bain, and the cop who slowly uncovers her identity (here played by Terrence Howard, looking as kind and snuggly as ever). The Brave One has three modes: Bain’s tortured recollection of better days spliced with snatches from the vicious attack that killed her fiancé and left her for dead; explosive vigilante violence; and long quiet exchanges between Bain and Detective Mercer as they manipulate each other and nurture an unlikely kind of a friendship, ethically speaking. It’s in these exchanges where nuance flowers (however generically) and the straight-up, can-do studio talents of Foster and Howard get full play.
A near analog to The Brave One would be Abel Ferrara’s 1981 Ms .45, in which a teed-off rape victim stalks random men on the streets of New York. While rape doesn’t explicitly figure into Bain’s triggering experience, her need to substitute elusive, unknown attackers with unrelated prey steers the action (as opposed to this month’s other vigilante fare, Death Sentence, in which the grieving relative knows exactly who to aim for). The prey Bain hunts aren’t any more innocent or sympathetic than the men who hurt her. She locks onto would-be rapists, murderous spouses and abusive johns. While it was her fiancé who lost his life in the attack (if you were about to marry a tender Naveen Andrews, only to have him randomly beaten to death with a pipe, wouldn’t you be tempted to crack down the middle, too?), there’s no question that The Brave One examines a particular strain of violence: that which is perpetrated by men against women with gendered causal overtones.
It’s the sight of men murdering their wives, or the threat of rape on a subway, or the abduction of an under-aged prostitute and a perv’s repeated susurration of whore which enable Bain to shoot with steady hands. The New York streets that she once extolled as a talk-radio voice have been transformed, thanks to Jordan’s staging and Foster’s cringing, into an amphitheater of physical threat. It starts the moment Bain leaves the hospital, with what is perhaps one of the most easily missed, metaphorically crafty shots I’ve seen in a big studio film in ages: Jordan’s camera looks down the lobby corridor of Bain’s apartment building and through a glass door as she exits a cab on her return home. As he establishes a visual and psychological claustrophobia that will plague his victim in coming days with this tight, trite POV, a 300-pound construction worker toting a motherfucking chainsaw blinks through the background, ogling Bain like she’s the street-meat de jour. That construction worker embodies the male-gaze malaise women deal with outside of their homes, and he’s the first in a series of men clustered in groups or hurrying along sidewalks who are made to appear accidentally sinister, until Bain begins her rampage and gradually transforms into a chunk of homicidal steel.
The thing that draws many of us to the revenge genre, of course, is its safely fictional presentation of efficient street justice. Libertarians gleefully nod along with vindicated smugness, while anti-capital punishment advocates squirm in a soup of their own guilt. The former have already reconciled their unchallenged emotions to some form of political argument, while the latter, without relinquishing their own positions in any real way, can still enjoy a funneling thrill of reason and passion at war within themselves. All but the most hardline of audience members will probably experience some degree of inner tension as their objective logic clashes with the human-nature jolt of satisfaction each time a violent predator is rubbed out (I would definitely exclude the apparently unconflicted Handy McClapper five rows ahead of me and to the right, who applauded with sustained gusto each time Bain leveled a baddie). Neil Jordan has expressed, in past interviews, a deep interest in irrationality and embattled logic, and The Brave One is the Jordan vehicle that best captures this dichotomy, which is built right into the genre. Enjoy your applause and/or guilt-laced vicarious thrill — the violence and the message deliver unapologetically. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on September 15, 2007.)