Directing, co-writing and starring in “The Brave,” a turgid and unbelievable neo-Western, Johnny Depp offers further proof that Hollywood stars who attempt to extend their range are apt to exceed it. In this case, the main fault lies with the writing. Lacking both a realistic grounding and compelling internal momentum, pic wastes its handsome mounting and capable cast on a plodding tale that eludes either psychological or allegorical sense. Overlong and unexciting, it will be a tough sell in all areas except epicenters of Depp devotion.
That the story, scripted by Depp, his brother D.P. Depp and Paul McCudden from Gregory McDonald’s novel, supposedly takes place among Native Americans must be counted as pic’s first problem. There’s no specificity or authenticity to the characters; they’re simply generic modern Indians, which understandably could be taken as exploitative or insulting.
In this regard, Depp simply combines age-old Hollywood bad faith toward native peoples with the worst tendencies of two of his obvious mentors, Jim Jarmusch and Emir Kusturica, who often mask cultural condescension with arty pretension.
Similarly vague, tale’s setting is Morgantown, location unknown, a desert outpost perched on the edge of a huge garbage dump. With a wife and two kids, loser Raphael (Depp) is looking for a way out when a trip to town leads him to Larry (Marshall Bell), apparently a businessman. Promising work, Larry sends him to a mysterious figure named McCarthy (Marlon Brando), who meets Raphael in a dark warehouse and offers him a terrible bargain: $50,000 for his agreement to be murdered a week hence.
Though Brando’s work in this key scene is entirely credible, his windy philosophizing about death seems an unintended parody of his soliloquies in “Last Tango in Paris.” Pic’s dialogue generally tends toward the half-baked. Plus, motivation remains murky. Preliminary production reports suggested a snuff film as the reason for McCarthy’s deadly deal. As is, the viewer’s best guess will have to suffice.
Even given the premise’s waftiness, little is done to develop it in logical dramatic ways. If a man sold his own suicide to benefit his family, would he not face a crisis over whether death might hurt his loved ones more than poverty ever could? Not in “The Brave,” where basic human emotions stand little chance against the script’s labored contrivances.
Among these, the most hootable comes when Raphael, hoping to give his family some memorable gifts before his rendezvous with the Reaper, constructs a rustic theme park outside their home. All it takes is a hammer and a few hours. Though strikingly preposterous, this is merely the most egregious example of Depp’s tendencies toward Hollywoodesque unbelievability at one extreme and Kusturica-like faux surrealism at the other.
Pic’s single biggest liability, though, is the unvarying monotony of its pacing and overall presentation. Each scene seems to run the same length, has the same dramatic pitch, exhibits the same flat dialogue and is tightly focused on Depp, usually in a pas de deux with another character. The most significant of these are Elpidia Carrillo as Raphael’s wife, Cody Lightning as his son, Clarence Williams III as the local priest and Luis Guzman as his nemesis.
After nearly two hours of tedious unfolding, pic reaches a sudden, frenzied climax when Depp confronts Guzman, bites off his ear, spits it in the air and then strangles him. As unappetizing and absurd as it sounds, this bloody tangle plays like a desperate, last-minute effort to inject some tension and spark into a film that has been drastically lacking in both for most of its length.
Supporting players here do solid work, though the lack of interestingly written parts precludes standouts. Tech aspects, several executed by frequent Kusturica collaborators, are fine.