Let's be frank, someone like Martin Scorsese practically keeps on doing the same film without getting too much flak for it. 'Departed', his long overdue Oscar winner, strikes the same thematic chord as 'Casino', 'Gangs of New York' or even 'Goodfellas' and all are really great films with just a decade separating their release. A recent Popmatters feature brought up the point of sameness in a film career but I think that once the films are great then what does it really matter? Scorsese did direct 'Age of Innocence'-- a departure of his usual style-- and still got a great film in the process.
Jodie Foster, who got her big break in another Scorsese film, 1976's 'Taxi Driver', as a fourteen year old prostitute Iris, is a severe example of the limitation of sameness however. Her few film roles this decade have all exerted an overzealously feminist slant that has ended up being frivolous. Her shivery, steely gazes proved too hyserical in the uptight 'Flightplan' and downright ineffectual eventually in the unrewarding 'Inside Man'. She's always sought to portray strong women even if they start out as a victim of circumstance at first. Her stumbling block though is dated representation: what worked on every level in the seminal 'Silence of the Lambs' (her portrayal of Clarice Sterling is one of the greatest female roles ever executed) is what she keeps trying to duplicate and fails because Foster no longer is capable of exuding a long, convincing stretch of vulnerability. 'The Brave One' hits on this impasse early and tries to move beyond it quickly so as to slip past any gray matter but it is this dubious decision that places it on its heels initially. Foster is radio talk show host Erica Bain. One night she and fiance David (Naveen Andrews)decide to walk the dog through Central Park and are brutally attacked by thugs who videotape the entire thing. David dies but Erica survives and remains emotionally scarred forever. Her first action after leaving the hospital is to lawfully follow due process but, as justice grinds slowly even in Manhattan, Erica decides to get an illegal gun. The gun is bought but its purpose ends up being skewered and irrational at best: it serves both as protection and as a renegade tool.
Director Neil Jordan ('Crying Game') fixates so much on Erica's thirst for vengeance that he never sufficiently explores how she arrives at such a point. Indeed, not even Erica herself fully understands her own motives as she begins to kill. After each victim is done away with she ponders why there is no one stopping her and gets all philosophical with poetic ramblings. Besides, the plot juxtaposes her between its own clear attempt to delineate violence and the reaction towards vigilante killings. It is only when both ideals split that we can appreciate Erica's need for help. Her inner renegade is allowed to take over her judgements to the point where, unchecked, she becomes just as criminal as those she hunts. 'The Brave One' unhinges any suspense it had built up at this point because it switches her from victim to killer swiftly and without much thought. Instead of a deconstruction of Erica's violent intent it incorporates Detective Mercer (the ever engaging Terrence Howard) as watchdog and eventual guide to her. Mercer catches on to her plans, even hints to her flat out that he knows yet his duty gets conflicted with a desire to see justice done. When Erica tracks down one of her attackers--the one that inexplicably taped the incident and kept the dog--Mercer is on the scene early enough to save him from sure death. What he allows to happen next shows the true weakness of the film: an unnatural sway towards a white woman seeking justice as well as an acknowledgement that police justice isn't adaptive enough. Mercer gives Erica free license to dispense justice whenever she sees fit, clouding her sense of guilt even more. This leads back to Foster's inability to mould Erica into a victim: she is just another crusader in the Manhattan night lulled into false security of a gun.
While she struggles mentally to decide which train of thought to coherently follow, 'The Brave One' tethers with a look back to Erica's past and sees nothing to offer us, real or imagined. Violence is a startling thing to undergo but can the retribution of it be held justifiable without defining a limit to the harm the victim can exact? Because this principle is never fully explored to or by her at any point, 'The Brave One' ends up toothless despite arming itself for the long haul. Like her other recent films, Foster carries this one viciously overboard by integrating all her previous ebullient roles into this one persona and the necrophilia is utterly wooden. Let's hope she fares better in her upcoming portrayal of German director Leni Riefenstahl. At least that's less fiction for her to work with.