Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Waiting Beneath the Surface

The previews flashed rapid, action-packed images of a vigilante killer; a woman fed-up and fighting back. They portrayed a story that glamorized violence because it was justified, for a cause. Set to exciting music with awesome graphics and Jodi Foster's sexy, svelte 40-something body, the trailers sold us a story that boasted all the worst ideas that a young woman could take from words like "Empowerment" and "Reclaiming Oneself" and "Bravery." To me, the previews were the ultimate in "trailer trash," because they didn't sell you the story- they sold ideas that the money men thought would hook an audience in and sell seats. They sold bullshit.

My fiance's cousin wanted to go see this movie called "The Brave one." I'd seen all the previews and was loathe of the very idea of seeing it- for what the previews claimed it was. So me, being the Reigning Goddess of Research ...decided to hunt down the script and read THAT first. So yes, I admit, I screened a movie for a 20 yr old woman as if screening Transformers for an 8 yr old, but with good cause. Not that I am some sage old woman, but at twenty I was still very much formulating my ideas of what it was to BE a woman. Hell, I still have soft-spots that need solidity; and not that I imagine she looks up to me as some kind of role-model, but I did not want to advocate an idea that I do not believe in by showing support and paying for her ticket. Call it an ineffectual liberal-esque protest, but that was simply my point of view.

The script I read moved me. What I found in the story was a woman- not hell-bent on murdering men or even scum-bag men- but rather a woman who struggles with how to survive when she already feels dead. Overly poetic? Perhaps, but wholly true. Ever step this woman makes is part of a progression, one that- in the director's perspective- has an ultimate end, an unavoidable end. Reborn of fear, this woman- losing her fiance to a senseless act of violence and herself being beaten nearly to death- takes a step, which many are led to believe is a logical act toward protection: she buys a gun. Having that weapon gives her a sense of security and yet, when first she uses it- in desperation- and she does take the life of another human being, she does not feel proud or vindicated or even justified. She is horrified by what she has done, yet the fear persists. This event only solidifies in her mind the NEED for that protection. If she hadn't had it, she would be dead. This is how the progression begins, and with each act her detachment from these men as Human Beings becomes less and less, making her decision to act easier and easier. Yet the woman's rational mind knows that what she does is wrong, it is her fear that compels her. She feels that she must do this, she must complete this progression of violence that was begun or she cannot rest. She must see it through to the inevitable end.

I have read so many reviews of this film that my head is filled with the trite, quippy dismissals that are regurgitated in one after the other. I do not know what critic or journalist was the first to make a comparison to 1974's Death Wish with Charles Bronson but every wanna-be hack writer since can take their tongue out of his/her ass and learn to think for themselves. The similarities are strained at best and if someone wants to make a comparison to another film, let's try something more relevant...and recent. Why not this year's Death Sentence with Kevin Bacon which comes complete with the "sympathetic Homicide Detective" and a gentle, mild-mannered vigilante protagonist pushed to the strained limits of their abilities to cope. Let us be honest people...we are hard-pressed to ever see any role played by Charles Bronson as anything other than a bad ass with a gun. I think it highly unlikely that we'll be seeing The Brave One V: The Face of Death coming out anytime soon. See, I can use IMDb too - only I've actually seen Death Wish and I'm not just relying on the one paragraph, poorly written synopsis. The Brave one has something that Death Wish lacks severely: credibility.

Every reviewer who walked into this film and came out to write that it was some "Girl-power" feminist version of Death Wish either didn't watch the movie and instead was the asshole sitting two rows in front of me with his lap top open and his cell phone on, or walked in already bound and determined to hate the film. And why not, it has Jodie Foster, one of the greatest threats to the good ol' boys: An intelligent, deliberate, and powerful woman. I dare you to find anything that qualifies as a "fluff film" on her resume after she turned sixteen. What appalled me when seeing the previews was the idea that the woman who so powerfully portrayed Sarah Tobias in The Accused would participate in a film that looked on the surface to be so painfully shallow and misguided. I should have trusted her judgment and never questioned the script. A Valedictorian of her French-speaking prep-school and magna cum laude of Yale, this woman wouldn't make such a senseless and irresponsible film as the one being advertised. Therein was the key. She didn't. And it is those who draw comparisons to films that senselessly glorify violence and Death Wish...that perpetuate the false peddlings of the trailers for this film.

Jodie Foster does not carry this film alone, however, and I must speak out for Terrence Howard. His character is powerful in that he represents the conscience of the film and of Foster's character Erica Bain. As Erica and Det. Mercer develop a friendship it is his rational voice that acts as the only thing grounding her in the reality of the now and not allowing her to recede so far into the dark of her grief and fear that she is lost completely. Lesser actors may have portrayed Mercer as a straight up Clark Kent-type, so clean and innocent of mind that he has to be from another planet. Howard finds an excellent balance of idealism, soul-weariness and a legal means to be The Punisher. There is no doubt, when watching the Detective that he is driven toward ensuring that bad people pay their toll and it is when the question is posed to him of which is better, which is right and more effective- the legal system...or any means necessary, it is then that we truly see Terrence Howard shine as he is divided within himself.

The idea of justice is one that has for centuries weighed heavily on civilized cultures. The question is not only what is the most effective- eye for an eye, life for a life- but also what is RIGHT. And what is right? Do you know? I don't know that I do. I'm certain that our society as a whole has no real clue. One of the biggest fallacies in the promotion of this film is the description of Foster's character as a Vigilante. A vigilante is "one who takes the law into one's own hands." That is not where this journey begins for Erica Bain. She doesn't leave the hospital after being brutally beaten and decide she is going to kill evil men. What Erica's journey is lies more in the realms of self discovery. Do not scoff, I'm quite serious. In buying that gun, she did not make a conscious decision that she was going to kill people.

The gun has become a symbol in our country (ours especially) of security. Policemen have guns and they protect. Security guards have guns, their very name suggesting their purpose. Our military carry guns and they have been elevated to a status of sainthood in America. We have our right to bear arms - to protect ourselves. Its as if the idea that bad men carry guns died out with the advent of film, when cowboys with guns became the new heroes, and anti-heroes like Dirty Harry redefined our society's concept of cool. The more guns you have the more bad ass and indestructible you are. Look at our pop-culture icons. Neo in the Matrix...he had a fuck of a lot of guns.

So this is where her journey starts with this need for protection, to not feel afraid, to not feel vulnerable and isn't with the notion that she intends to kill anyone. The first time she uses it she is defending herself and had she stayed at the scene, the worst she would have suffered was likely a charge for carrying an unregistered weapon without a license. But Erica was still overcome by her fear...and now there is new turmoil because she broke the biggest taboo of human nature: she killed another human being. Each step along the path that she takes, Erica sheds more and more of her fear, but what she finds through Det. Mercer's friendship and counsel is that she is also shedding pieces of Erica Bain. He asks her at one point, when someone has suffered what she has, how do they cope and then carry on. Her reply is poignant to Erica's struggle.

"You don't. You become someone else."

Anyone who has experienced any sort of violent crime can identify with the passage that Erica must make. To cope she had to become someone else, and bit by bit the real her was slipping away. A piece dying with each act of violence that she then exacted in turn. Her rational mind, that part of her which was still Erica Bain and was a friend to Det. Mercer, struggled with the questions of justice. Although these victims were violent men, men who left victim after victim in their wake, was it justified to kill them when the legal system seemed incapable of holding them accountable for their crimes? This is truly a question that defines societies as civilized or barbaric. Erica Bain and Detective Mercer held this same question in their hands each representative of one aspect; the civilized and the barbaric. Unsurprisingly the balance between two stark halves grows more and more blurred and the end of this film leaves that question in your hands. What is justice? Is it possible to weigh barbaric acts with a civilized system or must the civilized, at times, act barbarically in order to define justice?

Unfortunately many of us wait to ask ourselves these questions until we are faced with the choice and must act. It is easier to give the weight of the world to another to carry, and lay such decisions on others because to make a decision forces you to be accountable; not just for you and your own actions, but for the ultimate effect they hold over another. Day to day we face struggles which play upon our fears at some level. Our society, with its politics and the media, reflect how much of a grip we have allowed fear to have on us and if you look closely more are dying as a result.

I was given a different definition of 'Vulnerability' at a recent seminar. The speaker explained that Vulnero, in Latin means "to wound", and an 'ability' is the strength or skill to do something; you are able to do it. Vulnerability then is not that you are susceptible to being wounded, that implies weakness. By true definition it is "the ability to be wounded," or more meaningfully, it is that you have the ability to be wounded AND SURVIVE. Vulnerability is proof of ones strength. "The Brave One" does not reference Erica Bain's "ability" to stare down her attackers and to kill references Erica Bain's ability to recognize her fear and to not lose herself to it completely. It shows that she is vulnerable, but not defeated. Bravery is not the act of not being afraid, it is the perseverance of being afraid but going forward anyway.

"I always believed that fear belonged to other people. Weaker people. It never touched me. And then it did. And when it touches you, you know... that it's been there all along. Waiting beneath the surfaces of everything you loved." ~Erica Bain
The poster doesn't show a Charlie Bronson-type bad ass with a gun, or a cold-blooded killer,
but rather a woman with her head in her hands. Not much of a vigilante to be seen.


Katerina said...

ok, so in addition to reading Ebert religiously because whether not or not I agree with him I always enjoy what he has to say, I will now have a new reviewer that I will be reading every chance I get. In the next couple of days I believe that I will have finished all of your reviews... keep me happy and write some more in the meantime ;)

Anonymous said...

Charlie Bronson always has rope... maybe they just meant that this movie was like Death Wish in that there was rope in some part of the film.

Kahl said...

Kat: I'm flattered you rank me up there with him. Regardless of whether I agree with him or not, he is well-respected and that honors me. I'll do what I can to write more...they usually take a while for me because I aim to be precise in how I word things and double check all my facts!

"Anonymous": "I'm sweating my ass off carrying around your stupid fucking rope." rope in this movie but there's a 50/50 chance that one guy either died from the 40-story fall or the crow bar in his head...that's sorta Bronson-like, right?

Candy Man said...

Great stuff, now all you need is a rating system! :D

Kahl said...

Candyman: I used to have one I called The Eiger was spawned by the experience of trying to watch The Eiger Sanction, which is just an awful film. So I rated it based on how many minutes of the film I could sit through without getting bored, going for a snack or having a conversation/mocking it. Eiger only got a 20/123min...and that was generous. It gets tricky when films are awesome though! I started doing an Eiger rating (which was actual minutes) and a Quality rating (which was metaphorical, sort of).

I could bring that back. Could be fun!