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Erica Bain walks the streets of New York City, relating eloquent meditations about her observations on her popular radio show. She loves her job so much that she resists jumping to TV when a television station courts her: “I’m not a face, I’m just a voice,” Erica tells her boss. What she loves more than her job, though, is her hometown, and Bain seems deliriously happy to spend an evening with her fiancé, David, and dog at the park. Then they’re assaulted, and her boyfriend is killed. Suddenly, New York doesn’t seem so shiny. So Erica’s new companion becomes a gun.
Neil Jordan’s The Brave One is consistently and profoundly unsettling—and that’s partly because it brings Charles Bronson to mind. But star Jodie Foster hasn’t undone a career’s worth of choosing smart if similarly themed female-in-peril roles to make Death Wish VI: A Woman Scorned, even if the plot of The Brave One is remarkably similar to the 1974 Bronson vehicle that kicked off a bloodthirsty franchise. (See the just-released Death Sentence to get a rehashing of the story that more properly translates the series’ spirit for today’s zeitgeist.)
Foster’s Erica is angry, yes, but she’s frightened first. After waking from a three-week coma to the news that David (Naveen Andrews) is dead, Erica returns to their apartment and holes up to mourn. When it’s time to reconnect with the world, Erica obviously has to not only overcome her grief but the anxiety that inevitably envelops a crime victim. Jordan highlights this terror, if a little too dramatically: As Erica makes her way down her building’s dark hallway, light harshly gleams in through the door and menacing music quietly plays. It’s a scene more appropriate for a slasher film, but it’s a forgivable indulgence.
Erica admits that fear is something that’s foreign to her, a state of being she formerly associated with “weaker” people. She knows that she’s changed and refers to the “stranger” within. But one thing about her remains constant: Erica’s still just a voice, not a face—and keeping the latter anonymous is now more important than ever. After being unnerved by situations as innocuous as a skateboarder passing by her on her first day out, Erica buys an unregistered gun. One presumes it’s just for protection. And when she later witnesses a murder in a convenience store and shoots wildly at the gunman when he comes after her, Erica is suitably horrified. The next time she’s in harm’s way, though, she decides to kill again, later wrestling with the fact that revealing her weapon would have probably been enough to save her. She’s not comfortable with what she’s doing, but she doesn’t stop.
Foster is unsurprisingly terrific as Erica, projecting her usual toughness while physically looking like a stiff breeze could snap her in half. She knows that feeling shocked doesn’t mean turning frozen. Better still, she never lets Erica get smug, even as the media scream about the vigilante they’re sure is a man or as she befriends the detective investigating the case (Terrence Howard, smoothly proving that indignation can be righteous without being arrogant). As Erica finds herself increasingly mired, Foster’s expression is tense but about to crumble, with tears always threatening but rarely unleashed.
Of course, The Brave One wouldn’t really work if Erica didn’t turn into a magnet for crime, but the parade of coincidences that accompany the character’s development is a minor weakness in the script (written by father-and-son team Roderick and Bruce Taylor). More impressive is the film’s ability to wring your gut. Its violence is pervasive and all the more sickening due to its presence in many forms: It can be graphic, like the vicious attack on Erica and David, which included her being slammed against a concrete wall. (The assailants videotape it, a recording that finds its way back to Erica; she also has audio of confrontations that took place while she was out taping ambient sounds for work.) More often, though, violence is implied or impending: A subplot involving a girl and the stepfather who allegedly murdered her mother is heartbreaking, and each time Erica suddenly finds herself vulnerable is another occasion to hold your breath regardless of the fact that she’s packing.
The story’s revenge factor is undeniable, but Jordan never plays any of Erica’s murders for a thrill. Her actions are the desperate grasps of a traumatized person trying to regain a sense of control. She’s surprised by them, is never at peace with them, and eventually comes to the realization that they’re destroying instead of rescuing her. Still, The Brave One is likely to get a raucous response whenever a bad guy goes down. You may be disturbed by this, or you may be one of those cheering. Either way, it gets a reaction.