Starring: Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard
Filmmakers love a vigilante story. Whether they're drawn by the dark wish fulfilment of stories about ordinary people who transform themselves from helpless victims to avengers, or the moral ambiguity and complexities of such premises - or some combination thereof - depends on the filmmaker, as does the skill with which the dark themes are explored. Neil Jordan's The Brave One is definitely a skilled film, but one with a moral compass that might be a little too skewed for its own good.
Jodie Foster stars as Erica Bain, a radio show host happily preparing for her wedding to David (Naveen Andrews) until a vicious attack while they're out walking their dog leads to David's death and severe injuries for Erica. The incident prompts Erica to buy a gun, compelling her to go as far as to purchase one illegally due to the requisite wait time for a notice of approval. Shortly after getting the gun, Erica finds herself caught in the middle of a shooting at a convenience store and, in order to save herself from the gunman, shoots and kills him. She then takes the store's security tape and flees.
Other incidents follow. She kills two men on a subway after one threatens her with a knife and then she starts to go looking for trouble, walking the streets late at night, looking for people who "deserve" rough justice. While this is going on, an investigation is being run by Detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard), who is obviously on the side of law and order but also recognizes that the law is sometimes helpless to put away the truly bad people. Erica and Mercer's paths cross and they develop a friendship, of sorts, as Erica works towards what is inevitable: finding the three men who murdered David.
That Foster is the perfect actress for this type of story really goes without saying. She's spent much of her career eschewing conventional roles for actresses and Erica's grim determination, sense of agency, and, to be frank, bloodlust is certainly not typical of what we usually see from female characters. Her performance here is really great, making both Erica's intense vulnerability and her growing hardness completely believable. Although Erica's actions become increasingly questionable as the story progresses, you never for a moment doubt her conviction that what she's doing is right - but, then again, the film doesn't seem to doubt it very often either.
The Brave One seems to accept the premise that law enforcement is far too limited in its ability to effectively mete out justice, resulting in bad guys running free, creating more victims. The film's final scenes emphasize this, as Mercer's investigation and Erica's tour of vengeance finally dovetail, resulting in a finale which is dramatically satisfying, if not exactly believable. I wouldn't go so far as to say that The Brave One is an "endorsement" of vigilante justice, but it doesn't exactly take the "eye for an eye leave us all blind" position either. If anything, it seems to argue that violence in the hands of the "right" people is sometimes necesary. So, while the film is incredibly effective as a thriller (director Neil Jordan is particularly good at visually expressing Erica's loss of emotional equilibrium and feelings of terror following the attack), it's also a rather troubling film.