North Carolina State University Raleigh, North Carolina
The Brave One (2007)
Directed by Neil Jordan
Written by Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort
Principal Cast: Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard, Nicky Katt Mary Steenburgen
Produced by Susan Downey, Joel Silver, Jody Foster (Executive Producer), Silver Pictures/Warner Bros
Comparisons between The Brave One (2007), Neil Jordan’s latest film, and Taxi Driver (1976), Martin Scorsese’s seminal work of existential Americana, were as inevitable as they were slightly off the mark. Understandably, critics were drawn to the obvious similarities between the films: both are set in the disorienting underworld of New York at night and they feature Jodie Foster as a stalwart victim on whose behalf a spate of vigilante murders unfolds. Both directors embrace the challenge of humanizing characters who are in the process of becoming something less than human.
In Jordan’s film, Foster’s initially stable character becomes an unhinged avenger, taking matters into her own hands after a personal experience with random violence. This scenario contrasts sharply with that of Scorsese’s Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), whose backstory includes a stint in Viet Nam that only partially explains his confused political philosophizing and his increasingly delusional understanding of himself as a champion of the oppressed. The degree to which these characters are differently marked by tragedy — one the innocent victim of a senseless crime and the other a tainted product of a sick culture — offers an important clue to the disparities in the underlying visions of American culture that the two films purvey.
In fact, the differences between the films are more profound than their similarities and they reveal the disparate concerns of these two directors, with Jordan focusing on the psychological dynamics of fragile individuals who come face to face with inner demons after their identities are shattered beyond repair. This theme pervades nearly every one of his films. By contrast, Scorsese seems more interested in illuminating the social texture and group dynamics within communities of men whose grandiose dreams of acquiring power and status outstrip their intellectual capacity and thus their ability to maintain dominance. (Taxi Driver is a slight aberration in Scorsese’s oeuvre because Paul Schrader’s screenplay focuses so narrowly on the alienated individual). Jordan’s and Scorsese’s films also speak volumes about the changing image of New York as the quintessential American city.
At its most basic, The Brave One is a tale of individual transformation wrought from a monstrous violation. Foster’s Erica Bain, a National Public Radio personality who comments on the changing character of the city through its soundscape (she interviews people and also records ambient noise), is brutally attacked in Central Park with her fiancée, who is killed. After the incident, fearful of public spaces and aware that the perpetrators might never apprehended, Erica takes to wandering the city at night, carrying an illegal 9 mm handgun and looking for evildoers. Although her first kill in a convenience store is a direct quote from Taxi Driver, the narrative trajectory more closely resembles that of Jordan’s first feature film, Angel (1981), in which an apolitical jazz musician named Danny (played by Jordan alter ego Stephen Rea) becomes caught up in the Troubles in Northern Ireland after witnessing the murders of his band’s manager and a young woman by paramilitaries. In an evocative metaphor that Jordan uses in both films, characters literally replace instruments of creation with instruments of destruction: Danny carries his Armalite in his saxophone case and Erica totes her weapon around in the bag that contains her microphone and tape recorder.
The fact that the young woman whose death is avenged in Angel is mute (and possibly deaf) underscores another important resonance between these two Jordan films, namely, the critical role of sound. When pressed by her boss to do a television show, Erica protests, “I’m not a face; I’m just a voice,” foreshadowing the paradoxical identity she will eventually assume as a famous, yet anonymous, killer. In the film’s opening moments, Erica dangles a microphone to record the sounds of a city that, she regrets, is changing before her very eyes and ears, becoming something other than itself in the wake of 9-11. Her voice-over narration initially is motivated by her research for her radio broadcasts, but eventually her philosophical musings about the internal changes she is experiencing become detached from her on-air persona. Jordan almost always uses familiar songs as a prominent stylistic element, and this film is no exception: the popular standard “You don’t know me” underscores the romantic tension that builds between Erica and Mercer (Terrence Howard) the sympathetic, insomniac detective who is working on her case.
Yet the emphasis is placed squarely on sound itself rather than music, which enhances Jordan’s depiction of New York after the attack on Erica (and, implicitly, after 9-11) as a dangerous space haunted by the ghosts of innocent victims. Sounds not only signal danger — in the distorting echo that dominates the scene of violence at the Stranger’s Gate that changes Erica’s life irrevocably — but they also revive the past as painful present tense. When Erica returns home, she hears her dead lover’s voice on her telephone answering machine, demonstrating Jordan’s interest in rendering the soul-destroying effects of losing a loved one to violent death (following the tradition established by Hitchcock’s Vertigo). In another scene, Erica telephones Mercer before committing a pre-meditated murder and the pitch of an elevator bell betrays her location (a homage to another dark 70s film, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation).
Jordan captures the surreal character of traumatic memories through recorded sound as well. One of Erica’s attackers happens to have recorded the incident on his mobile phone (a galling act that helps Erica to track him down), and the digital file is played near the film’s conclusion. Because the images on the small phone screen are of such poor quality, the sound of the menacing thugs triggers the viewer’s memory of the event.
In addition to developing this sound motif, Jordan uses visual devices such as flashbacks and parallel editing to drive home the film’s gothic insistence that the past never releases its hold on the present. In a tightly edited sequence, Erica perceives the doctors who minister to her injured body in the hospital as her dead lover caressing her. Frequent tilts signal Erica’s disorientation, and reflective surfaces such as mirrors — a common Jordan element — bring into sharp relief the concept at the center of the film: the dreadful emergence of the gothic double, the mysterious stranger that resides within all of us. Several scenes are reminiscent of Jordan’s own taxi driver film, Mona Lisa, the most obvious being a sequence where Erica saves a young black woman who has been drugged by a man and held captive inside his automobile.
The increasingly claustrophobic and abstract mise-en-scène suggests a parallel between Erica’s process of emptying herself and the shifting urban landscape she moves within. Through Jordan’s tight framing, frequent close ups, and shallow focus, New York loses its specificity and its personality, shedding its tinge of American exceptionalism along the way. This almost generic sense of New York as more of a vacuum than a cultural mecca offers a direct contrast to Scorsese’s film, which portrays the city as a living, diverse, if problematic space of confrontation and creativity. Scorsese creates a space for irony, which Jordan’s film lacks: viewers remain aware of the absurdity and menace of Travis’s plight, see beyond his misguided racism and sexism, and also recognize his utter Americanness. As Erica’s world become more insular in Jordan’s film, all others come to embody a threat that neither viewers nor Erica can escape. New York becomes everywhere and nowhere at the same time; in other words, it represents the global city. The point that globalization levels differences in the most damaging of ways is reinforced by an underdeveloped subplot involving Erica’s neighbor Josai (Ene Oloja), a woman who has fled a country torn by civil war and child soldiers, only to encounter another newly initiated killer in Erica.
The film has been criticized for its impossibly romantic ending, which recalls the sacrifice made at the conclusion ofThe Crying Game. It’s fair to say that this is not the first time Jordan has stumbled while concluding a film whose plot was constructed by another writer (In Dreams comes to mind). This point, along with problems of consistency that plague the film’s narrative, lead one to a familiar lament about contemporary studio films. Poor writing seems to be the most salient manifestation of the hegemony of American industrial film culture: the now-familiar whiff of the entertainment corporation’s risk averse committee process plays out in the development process. My point is not to shed tears over the loss of the (now-idealized) Hollywood studio system or to curse the co-optation of independent filmmaking by conglomerates. But there is certainly something amiss in the charmed inner circle of corporate filmmaking when accomplished writers like Jordan are repeatedly underemployed on projects such as this one, where the screenplay was penned by three television writers. There are several reasons why the Writer’s Guild recently went on strike: for me, the most important issue is that the corporate behemoths repeatedly fail to recognize the importance of aesthetic integrity at the level of screenwriting. Until they do, we will continue to see some of our most gifted directors and actors (Foster garnered a Golden Globe for her performance in this film) in work that cannot do justice to their talents.