A moody faux noir, The Brave One (2007; dir. Neil Jordan) pays homage to revenge films of the 1970s, films with Charles Bronson and Bruce Dern and others where everyday citizens suffer horrible tragedies and take revenge on the criminals responsible. These films, along with the Dirty Harry and Billy Jack and Walking Tall series, and others, reflected a white middle-class belief in the breakdown of law and order in American society. In particular, they showed law enforcement agencies as ineffective if not corrupt, a justification for vigilante justice.
In The Brave One a couple soon to be married is attacked by thugs in a city park. The man is killed while the woman is gravely wounded. When she recovers, she finds that she is afraid in places and situations where she had never felt uncomfortable before. She buys a black-market gun for protection. One evening she walks into a grocery store and witnesses a murder. When the killer realizes she is watching, he moves to shoot her, but she kills him first. When hoodlums threaten her on the subway, she shoots them. She sees a man sitting in his car with a prostitute. He invites her to get in. The prostitute is barely conscious, heavily drugged. When the woman tries to help the prostitute out of the car, the man locks her in. She shoots him.
The woman increasingly chooses to walk isolated parts of the city at night, to expose herself to risk and to menacing people. Ultimately, she begins seeking those people out.
Her name is Erica Bain. She is a late-night radio show host who specializes in recording city background noises and on-the-air monologues about urban life. Her recovery from the tragedy she suffered is a gradual descent into murder and near madness. Jody Foster as Erica Bain is excellent. She plays the role in a flat, mute, depressed way. Terrence Howard as the police detective Sean Mercer investigating the murders plays his role in a similarly restrained and affectless manner that suggests deep emotions within.
This film's moodiness stems not only from the performances of the lead actors but also from the music and the cinematography. Most of the film takes place at night, in shadow or darkness, on streets hemmed in by towering buildings. The film is deliberately claustrophobic. The urban landscape is hostile and threatening. People avoid glancing at one another on the streets. The places Bain frequents are seedy and run down. There is little that is swank or high-toned about the New York of this film.
Unlike the vigilante films, the focus in this one is not on revenge but on the changes that occur in Bain's character and her developing friendship with detective Mercer.
Why in 2008 should a vigilante film fueled by the breakdown of law and order be relevant? Erica Bain early on asks herself why the police, who are investigating her fiancé's murder, seem like the enemy. Other than an unhelpful and impersonal desk detective, the police are sympathetic to her, although they do not manage to identify the people who attacked her. The breakdown of law and order in the United States is not a major issue these days. What is an issue is the breakdown of international law and order, the threat of terrorism in the United States, the fact that military and law enforcement agencies no longer seem able to protect individuals such as Erica Bain from threats and menaces that arise, whether this means thugs in a public park or men with bombs beneath their clothing. Erica's response to the violence in the city may be the film's way of expressing the unsettled state of world affairs in general.
The Brave One is well made, but it has its flaws. It's difficult to believe that Bain could get away with the murders she commits. She does not seek out most of her victims—but most of the time she kills, coincidentally or not, when no one is around to watch. Detective Mercer's gradual realization about who is committing the crimes is not credible. Arbitrary clues and guesses and a significant dose of intuition lead him to the discovery too soon. He himself is recovering from a difficult divorce, and his own traumatic experience allows him to sympathize to an extent with what is happening to Bain.
The Brave One ends in a resolution that betrays the basic principles of film noir. But it is the kind of ending that popular cinema must deliver. It is also, ironically, the kind of ending that confirms the underlying assumptions of 1970s vigilante films about law enforcement. Of course, numerous events in the last several decades seem to confirm those assumptions.