Erica Bain, played by Jodie Foster in the film The Brave One , is trim and lithe, with a short, messy-chic haircut. She is the host of a weekly radio segment, which must pay a whole lot better than in my experience of public radio. She walks around New York City with a microphone, recording bits of street life, telling corny stories of the living city in a faux-husky voice. As she perambulates, we witness everything we love about New York: the smarts, the eccentricities, the ethnic rainbow. She has a strong, pretty Indian doctor, played by Naveen Andrews, whom she will soon marry.
But there is something manic about Erica. She is dangerously enamored of the city, unaware that in a single second the place can swat her like a fly. On a walk in the park at night with her fiancé and their big German shepherd, Erica’s tiny face at exactly the level of her man’s broad chest, when it seems nothing can touch them, the city pounces.
The couple passes by letters in stone that say "Stranger’s Gate," ignoring the warning. The dog runs off. They kiss, and the camera breaks the so-called 180 degree rule, jumping from one side of them to the other (no director does this by accident; reflections are a major theme in the film). Then they enter a dark tunnel to retrieve the dog – Alice through the looking glass, now down the rabbit hole. (That we think of fairy tale motifs is no accident; the director is Neil Jordan, who specializes in them.) They are surrounded suddenly by a pack of wolves – three gang bangers. As mournful Bernard Herman-style strings swell, as the camera lists sideways, Erica takes a savage beating. Her fiancé does not survive.
What follows is an image of startling beauty. As Erica sleeps, in a three-week-long coma, her index finger, glowing red from the pulse monitor attached to it, climbs like an alien creature up her body, gently stroking her face, waking her at last. Who is operating that hand? Later, Erica says, "It is astonishing – numbing – to find inside of you, there is a stranger". There is your answer.
Agoraphobic and unable to leave her apartment, Erica holds her own bruised, wrung-out body, memories of lovemaking tumbling with images of the beating, a redux of a famous scene in Don’t Look Now . What emerges from this chrysalis is a different woman, green with rage, her eyes a predatory slit. When she grips an illegal 9mm automatic, not only is her hand steady, but it wraps hungrily around the gun’s stock in instant recognition.
Many prominent critics, Roger Ebert a three-and-a-half star exception, have called The Brave One a cynical button pusher. "Don’t be fooled," admonishes A.O. Scott in the New York Times . "Though well cast and smoothly directed, [the film] is just as crude and ugly as you want it to be." In fact, the film is neither topical nor political enough to spark in us those earnest conversations about morality, society, and violence against women. It is neither Death Wish nor Dirty Harry . The fantasy motifs should tell us we’re in a different kind of reality. I’m not saying that if a film is clearly make believe we should excuse its politics; rather that some films are so lyrical, we should give them poetic license.
A word about the mesmerizing Terence Howard. Here he plays the detective on the hunt for the vigilante. Of course he does not suspect little Erica. But the actor is able to convey that his subconscious is conducting its own investigation, circling ever closer to Erica, quietly putting her in situations where she might reveal herself – this despite his lonely attraction to her. And Erica is practically begging this gentle man, so like her dead fiancé, to stop her.
Okay, this situation is not remotely plausible. But the two actors share a couple of scenes that are so dizzying, you have to admit they almost sell it. If you take The Brave One the way it’s intended, you’ll find a film tightly written, visually textured, confidently directed, and acted with emotional precision. Genre doesn’t come much better than this.