Saturday, September 15, 2007

Film Review #124: The Brave One
Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard, Naveen Andrews

Thanks to David Letterman, the cover of Entertainment Weekly, and plenty of advance screenings in the hinterlands, most people paying attention to new releases know the basic storyline of The Brave One. I won such a ticket myself and saw this film in a mall theater, where ironically it displaced Death Sentence that night (a street-walker of a film if ever there was one). More ironically, in The Brave One, “Street Walk” is the name of the New York City public radio show that the popular Erica Bain hosts. Early in the movie, Erica (Jodie Foster) is talking in the radio station’s hallway with her producer, Carol (Mary Steenburgen). This is before Erica loses everything – her doctor-fiancé David Kirmani (Naveen Andrews), her dog Curtis, her moral bearings and sense of who she is, not to mention nearly her life – in a summer night mugging in a tunnel just inside the Strangers’ Gate entrance to Central Park. Carol tells the popular journalist – already we know she’s smart and curious and loves her work and does it well – that Bravo! TV has been calling. Erica raises both palms, shakes her head, exhales sharply – evidently this is not the first troll from TV recruiters – and says, “I’m not a face. I’m a voice.”

This simple declaration – which could sum up Foster’s whole approach to her own career choices – is enormously resonant in this film. This statement expresses how many who work on-air feel about radio, distinguishes among media in their effects, and points at the means of untangling the conundrums of violence.

The Brave One contains extreme violence. After the deeply unnerving scene in which a trio of yelping thugs kick David and Erica, bash them full-force against the tunnel wall with sickening crunches, and wield crowbars whose force makes their limbs bounce – well, then Erica moves on, once she can leave her the tunnel of her building’s front hallway. She moves on, horrified and disbelieving, first shooting a crazed stranger in a convenience store (this scary cameo from director Larry Fessenden, whose own scary The Last Winter opens later this month), then blasting two subway thugs, a pimp in a station wagon who’s held a girl of maybe 12 for six days, and a sadistic gangster whom the cops can’t nail, before she locates the guys who took her future.

This is frankly a post-9/11 movie about a world in which unthinkable firestorms of sudden violence erupt at any instant. In a film where sound is so crucial – set in New York and released the week of 9/11’s sixth anniversary – an unmistakable jet plane roars overhead just as Erica and David enter the park to walk their dog, lightly bantering over whether to elope (his idea) or wait for invitations (her’s and his mother’s idea). As a post- 9/11 film it’s also about what “combat conditions” do to one’s nervous system and one’s soul, as embodied in that modern day go-between figure, at best a kind of translator – the reporter.

The Brave One also addresses the interplay between media and violence in more intelligently than most efforts. You don’t expect that from the revenge flick genre, but when you think about it, isn’t this exactly where a filmmaker could address such issues? One key was a mindful choice of job for Erica, who is not a radio journalist haphazardly. Poking along in the wake of the glitzy internet, where everything hums through its electronic sheath, radio – that platform for pitching one’s voice into the great raw unseen – has been making a comeback. You don’t need middle-class leisure reading time for the radio – Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard), the detective following Erica’s case, hears his own interview in a squad car while stuck in traffic – even if there is still a whiff of class and gender bias – Mercer tells Erica his wife listened to her show before admitting he does.

Originally Erica was a newspaper reporter and Foster argued for the change. Foster has said about Erica, “In a way, David is her physical identity” – Erica’s way back to the surface of waking after three weeks in a coma is the physical recollection of their bodies making love – that “she becomes a voice in the night” without him. There’s a lovely image of Erica, just stirring, her index finger held clipped in a lighted, clothespin-like device that monitors her pulse, lifting that finger tentatively – if you think of E.T., she is really is coming back from deep space. In the film’s helpful but not overbearing production notes, producer Susan Downey says that making Erica a radio host allows her frequent voice-overs to be more “organic” to the way the film’s narrative unfolds for this character.

In ways the 2006 Robin Williams vehicle The Night Listener and Kasi Lemons’ recent Talk to Me don’t begin to approach, Jordan’s film captures how Erica works with her own voice as an instrument, edging it lower so she’s speaking from her diaphragm, out of her own core, practicing with a stop watch, starting her “intro” over to fix her cadences and enunciation. When NPR did its massive first-anniversary Hurricane Katrina coverage, I was able to interview national correspondent Melissa Block for a local radio piece about that project. She was somewhere in Mississippi, the phone connection wasn’t great, my time with her short. A consummate pro, she chatted me through my nerves just long enough for my voice to settle down – I could hear it myself when I got there.

Foster spent time researching her role at a west coast NPR station and it shows, from the way she holds a mic during an interview to the everyday lingo to certain values about the work. We meet Erica dangling a mic over some street grates, gathering ambient sound for a piece she’s putting together. She’ll lay that track under a voice track, fade it in and out for transitions between her commentary and her interview clips. And one of the best parts of this film’s sound design is how it captures the peculiar timbre of your voice coming through headphones when you’re speaking into a live mic. DP Philippe Rousselot, who’s worked on three other Jordan films and on Foster’s Sommersby (1993), developed a wobble for his Steadicam so that he could roll the horizon to visually convey disorientation, since the film largely occurs from Erica’s point of view. Less obviously, this film also achieves, sometimes with great intimacy, what her experience sounds like to her.

Good public radio commentary is crafted language, whether that occurs on the Apple laptop we only catch a glimpse of, or by habit of mind in the disciplined way Erica puts her words together. Language arises in the part of the brain that shuts off in the presence of traumatic threat and rage. What we see dramatically when Erica goes back on-air and cannot immediately speak is her struggle to get out of that primitive place, that ancient reptile mind. When she tells Carol, who thinks she needs more time off, that she needs to speak, she really is talking about what will save her, and by extension what might save the rest of us.

When Erica interviews Mercer, she turns off her recorder when he asks her to, later agrees something else can remain off the record. Think about how come the term “radio paparazzi” mostly seems incongruous and how come Don Imus seemed particularly injurious. There is a great variety of media and its practitioners in this film besides radio – press conference reporters and photographers, newspapers, TV, audio recorders, surveillance cameras in bodegas, VHS tapes, cell phones with video functions, video-cams, text messaging, emailing. There’s even a two-way mirror at the police line-up that magically puts Erica inside the camera’s eye. Most of it is intrusive, sensational, distorting, fragmentary rather than holistic, and deeply scornful of boundaries.

That is, most is inherently violent, often visual images and screaming headlines that provoke more panic and rage – speechless states where conversation is impossible. During the Central Park attack on David and Erica, the thugs take turns recording their attack on a cell-phone and a video-cam. Jordan inserts clips of these recordings on-screen as the attack proceeds, so that what we see alternates between the attack as Erica sees it, careening and chaotic, and then as it looks on a cell-phone screen, distorted and surreal – showing us in the moment how flesh gets reduced to trophy, an image already degrading into cartoon. Here’s where you recall the fearful, intuitively correct reaction of so-called primitive peoples who believed photographic images stole their souls. This seems not so “superstitious” when we consider how provocative media saturates our perception and attends our worst behavior.

This cell phone video returns to Erica later by email, quite unexpectedly. She doesn’t know it exists until she downloads it. Like the original attack, this facsimile plays inside a tunnel – she’s in the subway – where the setting reinforces the wave of déjà vu that brings Erica to her knees as she watches. Because this cell phone video has likely slipped out of the audience’s minds with the flow of events, its reappearance blindsides us too.

Erica Bain is on a hero’s journey of the most literate sort. Consider the scene where she tells the girl Chloe (Zoe Kravitz), whom she has just rescued, “I am nobody.” Brought to Chloe’s hospital room later by Mercer, Erica advises her to tell the truth. Then Mercer asks the girl who saved her and Chloe answers, gazing back at Erica, “I saw nobody and nobody saw me.” Old English majors will recognize this as lifted right out of Homer’s Odyssey, where the wily Odysseus fools the blinded, one-eyed Cyclops by answering that his name is “Nobody.”

Erica is not made “masculine” in this film. I suppose you could imagine this as a director’s strategy since a female vigilante is the last thing the police expect. Erica is depressed and traumatized. She gets visibly thinner, she’s not sleeping, her clothes get grubbier, more wrinkled and darker.

A repeatedly helpful reference here is the work of Jonathan Shay, the psychiatrist with a doctorate in classics, and his two books based on Homer’s ancient epics, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1995) and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (2002). Suffering from combat trauma as genuine as any on the streets of Baghdad, Erica Bain finds herself disconnected, increasingly isolated and a stranger to herself, having lost her single “special” comrade, with a shrinking horizon (think how much of the action occurs in tunnels and cramped hallways), betrayed by what’s right (Mercer’s own growing disaffection with the law reinforces this), her grief thwarted, in a classic “berserker” state. Shay argues that what heals is narrative – ordered, shared words that put form on chaos. If we think that Erica “gets better” because Mercer lets her shoot Lee (Luis Da Silva Jr), we have misread Jordan’s film entirely.

One clue is Erica’s neighbor Jackie (Carmen Fjogo), a reclusive, angry-faced black woman who refuses to speak and digs furiously in her courtyard garden. Erica and David smile a little over her on their way out to walk the dog that night – evidently they have a little gentle bet going over whether they can get Jackie to answer in the building’s hallway or on the front stoop. It’s Erica staggering in late one night, bloodied, that prompts Jackie to speak, to touch her. Stunned, Erica says, “That’s the first time you’ve ever said my name!” Sewing up Erica’s arm and bandaging her, Jackie takes in Erica’s confession that she’s just killed a man, and relates in an indeterminate accent that, where she comes from, “Soldiers made little boys shoot their families to prove that anyone is capable of crossing this line.”

Encounters like those with Jackie, Chloe, and Mercer are Erica’s lifelines, what allow her to survive finding and shooting Lee. Critically, they are clearly lifelines for Jackie, Chloe and Mercer too. Shay’s work is illuminating in its provision of context, but what occurs cinematically is Foster’s performance – to a quieter extent, Howard’s – in Jordan’s exquisitely prepared environment. I know 2007 is not yet over, but Jodie Foster’s extraordinarily moving Erica is easily the best – and bravest – performance by an actress I’ve seen all year.

This review appears on 9/17/07 at