Actress plays a vengeful woman in new film

Women in mainstream Hollywood dramas rarely use guns. Outside of the action fantasy realm, they don’t kill, and if they do, it’s a crime of passion involving a husband or lover. And they don’t kill repeatedly, for revenge.

That’s for vigilante Charles Bronson. Or Clint Eastwood. Or Robert DeNiro. When “The Brave One” debuts at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, some will view it as a response to the countless women in film who have been assaulted by violent men, from Foster’s 13-year-old prostitute in “Taxi Driver” to her rape victim in “The Accused,” which won her the actress Oscar. In “The Brave One,” Foster fights back.

“You’re led, strategically and architecturally, through each killing,” Foster told Variety. “Where the line is that you wouldn’t cross becomes extremely blurry.”

Safe to say in this pic, New York radiocaster Erica Bain has issues. She and her lover (Naveen Andrews) are brutally beaten by a gang of thugs in Central Park. After he is killed, the traumatized Bain picks up a 9mm handgun. She haunts the New York streets in a dark hoodie. When provoked, she whips out the gun and shoots to kill. Not just once. But over and over again.

While each act unfolds in a logical progression, some will no doubt find it very uncomfortable to watch.

The first time, Bain is protecting a woman from her assaultive husband. The second, she is held at knife point in a subway car. But she has two chances to get off the train before that happens. And doesn’t. “Violence leads to violence,” Foster says.

It’s exhilarating to watch Foster embrace a power usually only accorded to male actors. No one would blink twice if an actor played this role. “I see the movie as in the great tradition of the 1970s anti-hero,” she says. “Travis Bickle in ‘Taxi Driver’ or Dustin Hoffman in ‘Straw Dogs’ or ‘Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.’”

The ghost of “Taxi Driver” hovers over “The Brave One.” Three decades separate the post-Vietnam era “Taxi Driver” from the post-9/11 “The Brave One.” “New York is a place where rage and fear has been awakened,” says Foster. “It’s always been there.”

But Foster’s 45-year-old Manhattan sophisticate is no Travis Bickle. “He is unconscious,” Foster points out. “He’s never read a self-help book in his life. He’s not college-educated. He doesn’t know why he’s doing what he’s doing. She is conscious. She has shame. She dissects her life and talks about it. That sets the movie in a different place.”

Somehow Foster in this role resonates with her own film history. “You’re very aware that she’s grown up in front of you,” says director Neil Jordan (“The Crying Game”). “She was the little girl in ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Bugsy Malone.’ Her soul is pure cinema.”

But even perennial good-girl Foster can’t get away with committing screen murder the way the men do it. That’s why when Nicole Kidman (yet again) left the project, Foster insisted on laboring over the script with writer Cynthia Mort for six months before letting producer Joel Silver (an old chum she has never worked with before) go after Jordan, their first choice for a director. “There was something there that I was drawn to,” says Foster, “but it needed a drastic rewrite.”

Foster credits her high script standards for her remarkable box office track record, from “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Contact” to “Panic Room” and “Flightplan,” which was rewritten for her after Denzel Washington and Sean Penn passed. (Foster commands $15 million against 15% of the gross.) “When you find that nugget thing in a script that works,” she says, “then it’s your job to elevate that movie to live up to that one beautiful idea.”

The first thing NPR junkie Foster changed was her character’s profession, from newspaper reporter investigating her own crimes to a radio personality who tells stories about the naked city. There’s something wrong with her before the movie starts, says Foster. As a disembodied radio voice, “when she loses this guy who plays guitar, basketball, has a beard, she loses touch with herself as a body, she becomes a voice only. There’s this person she’s changing into that she hates and doesn’t understand. Lots of people, bad things happen to them, and they don’t buy a gun and kill people.”

The only known example of a female serial killer of strangers is Aileen Wournos, the angry woman played by Charlize Theron in “Monster.” Bain is not a serial killer, says Jordan, who also reworked the script. “She’s a revenge killer. It’s a fine edge. It’s a trail of revenge she embarks on.”

Nor is Bain your average post-traumatic stress victim. “She’s the exception,” states Foster. “She’s not the mom who drinks herself to death, who beats her children, who stabs her husband. She’s transformed into something alien that nobody would ever assume she could ever be. There’s not any research for that.”

Foster also pushed hard for Terrence Howard to play the detective tracking Bain who isn’t far away from crossing the same line. Their relationship is “more intimate than romantic,” says Foster. “She wants him to be the one who takes her down. Somewhere she knows that he’s transforming too. And he’s like her. He doesn’t realize that the reason he’s drawn to her is that she did it.”

Jordan was attracted to the dialogue between the two characters. “He says, ‘You don’t have the right to this, and I do.’ She says, ‘Why do you have the right to do this?’ ” The film’s provocative ending, which was the subject of intense debate between the studio and filmmakers, answers that question.

Playing this character felt good, Foster says.

“There’s something gratifying about holding a 9 millimeter in your pocket,” she admits, “to have the power to know that with less calories than it takes to put a candy in your mouth, you can make a decision that says, ‘I live, you die.’ ”

But, Foster insists, she does not act like other cinema action icons. “When she approaches the guy with a crowbar, she doesn’t say, ‘Listen motherfucker I’m going to take you down,’ ” says Foster. “She says, ” ‘Why do you think you can hurt people? You think you can just hurt people and walk away?’ That to me is so compelling. She does say, ‘I want my dog back.’ But throughout the movie there is such pain and longing and weakness and shame. It’s a mixture of strength and so many huge vulnerable emotions. It’s not the toughness or the strength that makes it work, it’s the other stuff.”

The movie is subversive, Foster says. “That is its strength. It will ask people to head down into a very shameful place. Some people will embrace that and feel empowered by it. And some will resent it. Some people will root for that revenge because they’re with the character. But it doesn’t mean she’s not wrong.”

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