Hell hath no fury like a woman with a grudge, and in “The Brave One,” Jodie Foster unleashes her rage on the mean streets of New York with the same mesmeric intensity and steely resolve that have characterized her very best performances. Foster’s pistol-packing turn as an avenging dark angel nearly sustains director Neil Jordan’s grim vigilante drama through a string of implausibilities and occasionally trite psychological framing devices, with deft support from Terrence Howard as a sympathetic cop. Top talent involved should draw decent midrange B.O. for the Warner Bros. release, despite its tough subject matter.
While Jordan typically works from his own scripts, “The Brave One” (written by Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort), with its distaff twist on the vigilante picture, feels appropriate coming from a helmer who, in films like “The Crying Game” and “Breakfast on Pluto,” has handled issues of gender subversion with subtlety and dramatic flair.
Here, he gets a performance out of his lead actress that takes on extra-textual dimensions thanks to Foster’s previous performances as a woman in trouble, whether as a battered prostitute in “Taxi Driver,” a rape victim in “The Accused” or a green FBI agent in “The Silence of the Lambs.”
A radio host who tells stories about life in “the safest big city in the world,” Erica Bain (Foster) finds her world irretrievably altered one night when she and her fiance, David (“Lost’s” Naveen Andrews), are attacked and savagely beaten by a trio of thugs during a stroll through Central Park. The assault leaves David dead and Erica with more lasting psychological than physical scars, and it’s not long afterward that she impulsively buys a gun.
Erica no longer feels safe — a fact made clear enough by Foster’s clenched, tight-set features, yet also excessively underlined by a nervously swerving camera and ominously subjective tracking shots through a dark corridor. But Erica’s fear and grief are ultimately subsumed by her anger, and when she kills for the first time — in self-defense — it leaves her with a vague appetite for more.
Justice or revenge? Hero or villain? All the usual questions arise, some of them pondered by callers-in to Erica’s show, who are alarmed by the vigilante in their midst. They’re pondered, too, by Sean Mercer (a superbly world-weary Howard), a cynical detective whom Erica interviews for a segment, and who also happens to be investigating Erica’s handiwork.
While the relationship between these two unexpectedly kindred spirits takes on a queasy intimacy that results in some of the film’s strongest scenes, it also points up the script’s reliance on tidy coincidences: Even viewers who buy Erica as both cold-blooded murderess and respected media personality may raise an eyebrow at the fact that Mercer and his partner (Nicky Katt) appear to be the only homicide detectives in the entire city. Similarly, that Erica finds herself readily imperiled almost every time she goes out at night — even when she starts looking for trouble — seems awfully convenient, even as it promises to feed audiences’ worst stereotypes about Gotham crime rates.
But “The Brave One” convinces where it most counts, as Foster delivers a performance of astonishing physical and psychological credibility. Lowering her already deep voice to a husky rasp (speaking mainly in a disturbingly cool voiceover that bleeds into her sessions on the air), her eyes glazed over one moment but flickering with murderous excitement the next, the actress all but physicalizes the idea of a woman boldly inhabiting a man’s skin — an inner transformation that Erica seems to observe from the outside.
At the same time, Jordan films the actress to accentuate her petite stature, her lithe frame, her thin arms constantly bared from the shoulders. When Erica walks the streets at night or strides purposefully onto a subway platform, she seems to be descending, wraith-like, into the abyss; yet her ferocity can also give way, without warning, to vulnerability and panic, especially when events begin to spiral out of her control.
Even at her most ruthless, Foster never cedes her grip on the viewer’s concern — but then, neither did Charles Bronson in “Death Wish.” Jordan neither subverts the pleasures of seeing lone-ranger justice onscreen, as David Cronenberg did in “A History of Violence,” nor panders overtly to the audience’s baser instincts; instead, “The Brave One” attempts to tap into post-9/11 anxieties and comment on the very American idea of righteous payback.
But it’s hard not to feel that this moribund genre has simply exhausted its ability to say anything new, and even the film’s too-twisty denouement — which brings new meaning to the term “cop-out” — feels softer than the provocation it’s meant to be.
Pic has its grungy, dark-night-of-the-soul ambience down cold, thanks to expert New York location shooting and Philippe Rousselot’s moody, desaturated lensing. All other tech contributions are pro.