Every few years, I see a movie that didn’t really fall into place yet it continues to nag me for some reason — as if I saw a seed of something unassumingly profound. I imagine it’s kinda like seeing a ghost: you’re not certain if what you saw was actually there or just imagined. And in pop culture, it’s these unassuming, flawed properties that come and go with a whisper. Even if critics point out the merit of these unrealized works, “imperfect but has some good ideas!’ is one of the least effective ways to get people in seats. Yet, I’ve found these are often the movies that stick with me longest.
This sensation has been pawing at me ever since I saw Neil Jordan’s The Brave One in 2007. At this point, the film is basically unknown, like most of Jordan’s post-The Crying Game catalog. After only making back half of its budget (domestically) and scoring a 43% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film is sentenced to flounder in perpetuity. In an attempt to scratch this ten-year itch, I returned, to finally see if there really is anything of substance to The Brave One.
The plot is simple: after being senselessly and brutally beaten — along with her fiance, who was beaten to death — Erica (Jodie Foster), traumatized and disenfranchised by the justice system’s red tape, makes her own justice by murdering criminals in the evening streets of New York City. Meanwhile, a couple NYPD detectives are wondering who’s doing all this killing … and why?
Basically, Erica starts a killing spree of sorts, of criminals she catches in the act. She’s gunning down low-level criminals: convenience store thief, a couple subway muggers, etc. Parallel to the spree, her relationship with one of the detectives (Terrence Howard) becomes a knowing dance — a tacit understanding that Howard can’t substantiate … and is unsure how much he wants to.
It doesn’t take long before The Brave One starts to feel more like a Batman origin story: as a way of navigating trauma and circumventing an inadequate justice system, Erica makes justice where she can. Aside from the personal vengeance/justice, the similarities only continue to rack up between her relationship with the detective and the public’s reaction to her clandestine crimes. The film more or less becomes Batman Begins without all that dumb training-in-Japan stuff.
I have no idea how intentional the similarities to Nolan’s film (which came out two years earlier) are, but I enjoy The Brave One in this context, as a superhero text that lacks the lore, mythology and canon of a high-profile property. And the film gains steam the more it indulges Erica’s transformation into a faux-superhero. The further her murders are removed from acts of self-defense, closer to acts of willful and violent justice, the more introspective the film gets.
Early in Jordan’s film, we get a deep understanding of the PTSD Erica experienced following her attack. There’s a heightened attention to the paralysis she suffers during minute details. She’s terrified to go outside; just approaching the door feels physically impossible, so she shuts herself off from the outside world. And when she does manage to make it past her doorstep, everything and everyone makes her uncomfortable. Even a decade removed from the film, this intimate portrayal of PTSD is uncommon in movies. Both Jordan and Foster give us time and space to see the granular scope of living with trauma, allowing us the ability to empathize with Erica.
When her acts of justice become increasingly premeditated and sought out, we recall something Erica told the detective. After he asks how she was able to pull it together, to get past what happened to her, she responds, “You don’t … You become someone else. A stranger.” Once she starts to seek out criminals, in order to murder them, we know that her transformation is complete. She’s no longer who she used to be, and she might not be happy about it, but it’s also the only way she knows how to move on.
If anything, it might be the current landscape of superhero properties that, in juxtaposition, mark Jordan’s film so interesting a decade later. Being so oversupplied with Marvel and DC properties, seeing a superhero structure used, without any due fan service, to interrogate someone’s grief is so refreshing.
That said, the film isn’t perfect. It has some tonal issues — Jordan has a hard time transitioning from the PTSD to the pulpier spirit of Erica’s faux-superhero — but its reputation of obscurity belies what it has to offer. It’s an interesting failure, but as I mentioned, sometimes these imperfect works sink their claws in you, leaving you to appreciate them in a way that feels more significant than a stamp of approval.