Friday, January 18, 2013


If there's one thing you know about me, you know I love to defend films with a bad reputation and give others a chance to do so as well. I don't know Nathaniel Drake Carlson personally (I only know him through his brilliant movie-related posts on Facebook) but I know enough to know that he has an appreciation for cinema unlike most people. While many so-called film enthusiasts spend their time defending films that aren't really that underrated or overlooked, Nathaniel defends truly underrated & misunderstood works like Fear X or the filmographies of C. Thomas Howell & Billy Zane. He even stands his ground on recent works like Prometheus. Personally, I think this man should have his own film site, blog, wordpress, something (he even put care in to the title of this write-up). But until that time comes I'll utilize his gift with words here on PINNLAND EMPIRE.
This write-up couldn't have come at a better time. While Jodie Foster is still fresh in our minds (courtesy of her awkward Golden Globes speech) read Nathaniel's thoughts one a somewhat recent film she acted in that didn't get the best reception.


There was a time not too long ago when the emergence of a new Neil Jordan film would be sure to stir up heated reactions. That time, it seems, has passed. Jordan’s visionary perspective has become passé. This must be so for there is little else to otherwise explain the indifference which met his startling and brilliant 2007 film The Brave One, tagged dismissively as a “revenge thriller” or “Death Wish clone.” Perhaps it was the glut of more obviously “great”, less critically divisive works like There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men that left no time or space for dealing with elusive though still trenchant pieces like this and Branagh’s Sleuth remake. Whatever the case, there remains a very real need to rectify this neglect. It seems that The Brave One suffered from a number of misconceptions. First, there is the misconception that it was somehow aesthetically neutral because Jordan must have been a “gun for hire.” Regardless of the truth of Jordan's formal situation and relationship to the development of this picture, his indelible stamp is all over it, certainly as much as in the equally neglected In Dreams. We see it in his carefully selected deployment of canted angles to convey disorientation and in his less selective use of deep chiaroscuro with shadow effects that enliven the atmosphere and heighten the sense of immediate experience. More than that, however, The Brave One bears the imprint of his whole methodology. It is yet another in Jordan’s series of fairy tales, real life reconceived as pure style in order to more directly address essential truths that often get obscured via the distractions of “realism.”
Also, of course, the movie was probably poorly marketed, though if you’ve seen it it’s hard to imagine what proper marketing of this complex, willfully indeterminate material would be. The vaulted style is, as usual with Jordan, a possible deception for those disinclined to accept films that function in this way. Still, the original poster art and tag line as they stand really do a proper job of it after all: Jodie Foster posed with a gun in one hand and the other hand held up to her head. How Many Wrongs To Make It Right? Indeed, that is the point of the whole film but it's not actually a question and if it is it’s a rhetorical one. Because what’s at stake here is a profound consideration of the effects of violence and loss (in all its permutations, not just loss in death or loss of security). Rather than getting lost in political platitudinizing, Jordan’s elegant but forceful challenge is for us to take the essential idea of loss seriously and thus to understand better how it can become embodied in genre trappings (similar to the way Lynch originally handled the death of Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks). There is great despair and dismay in Jordan’s film, barely held in check by his cinematic acumen. The consideration of grief in movies like Death Wish, by contrast, is shown up to be the pretext it is for the enactment of violent rituals of self-assertion and control. Jordan seeks to rectify the hideous imbalance in our understanding of how vulnerability functions in tandem with fear and anguish to foster will to power. And though the post 9/11 parallels are unavoidable, Jordan doesn't allow them to overwhelm the more abstract focus of his material; such themes are subordinated to this focus and exist only as potentially informing subtext. The point is that The Brave One is not to be dated by any specific topical concerns. Jordan doesn't attempt here to re-invent conventional narrative form but rather to fully live within it and to try and discover where the essential truths in such presentation reside. That’s why his seeming use of racial stereotypes to represent the fear inducing Other is ultimately beside the point. Jordan is taking a lot of visual short cuts here that may not seem “fair,” but that’s irrelevant when much of his point has to do with the actions engendered by irrational fear. There are times, it’s true, when he pushes that approach to the limit. The exoticized black woman who lives next door to Foster’s character Erica Bain and acts as vehicle of folk wisdom is one such example: “There are plenty of ways to die but you have to figure out a way to live.” This sort of bromide is well despised and deserves to be but here such stuff is absorbed organically into the whole. It feels of a piece with the nature of Jordan’s stylistics in which the elevated atmosphere allows us to take such simple statements seriously, for whatever potential genuine truth they may contain.
There are a lot of revealing allusions to other films, whether fully intended or not. The tunnel assault uncomfortably recalls the central set piece in Irreversible, though I suspect the final fade out here is meant to partially dull the supposedly undeniable truth of Gaspar Noe’s nihilism. During the assault we see the attackers filming the incident with a video camera. This reminded me of the central conceit/gimmick in Gareth Evans’ Footsteps, in which the villain documents his activity in a similar fashion. Jordan’s use of the idea is more humane, however, as he does not allow it to attain fetishized prominence as an end unto itself but rather diminishes its importance by prescribing it an almost non-active role purely as the eventual initiator of Erica’s traumatic memory (this could be read then as a “plot device” by some less generous critics but I disagree; it’s Jordan’s confidence as an artist that allows him to understand how form meets function). The post-assault scene in the emergency room is cross cut with Erica and Naveen Andrews’ David in a romantic flashback which brings to mind the disturbing disruptions of a similar scene in Nicolas Roeg’s Bad Timing. The distress Erica reacts with to her radio show callers’ shallow understanding of vigilantism reflects the appropriate analogue breakdown scene in Talk Radio. And the subway confrontation with the two black men recalls another much more rigorously controlled scene of racial tension in Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown. Erica’s eventual, willfully imposed personality of strength could be read as the sort of strength out of necessity that Ridley Scott was assumedly trying to get at in Thelma & Louise, except here that strength is seen more for what it really is, a fragile false front whose empowering tendency runs counter to sustainable mental and spiritual health. Jordan understands well that such strength is born as a desperate reaction; he allows us to see its vulnerable origins. The Brave One would function well as part of a double feature with Jane Campion’s equally excellent In the Cut, as these are both urban fairy tales, not so much about the feminine per se, but rather using women as (currently) radical symbols for an investigation into the nature of how fragile sensitivity is and whether it can be maintained in the face of the brutal recognitions rendered by blunt force trauma—in short, what does aggression do to the receptive faculty? Can it be injured permanently? Can it recover? In response to this there is a truly great moment here, shortly after Erica’s encounter with the subway thugs, in which she stands shaken up before a mirror in a restroom. There is an astonishing image of her, after having bathed her face in the sink, with water pouring down her cheeks and embodying the tears she is too disoriented to know whether to produce herself. Jordan’s perception of her devolution is clear as he makes that decision for her. After this, she fastidiously applies make up, which, coming directly on the heels of this earlier moment as it does, suggests much about the symbols that are applied to self-indicate a restoration of some measure of social control and cohesion (that’s why the DVD cover art, extolling Foster’s make-up look is so laughably wrongheaded; the design team actually think this is some dim romanticization of female empowerment and they add insult to injury by associating it with vengeful assertiveness, the very thing Jordan’s deeply sensitive approach is critiquing). As in the aforementioned Thelma & Louise, the protagonist here travels an arc of developing reaction. The set piece object lessons that Jordan charts out are illustrations of her psychic plates shifting. The initial encounter is unavoidable, acquiring the gun is an understandable response to loss of security and control and even identity, the first “vigilante” encounter is an example of her worst suspicions being realized, the next is a shoring up or reifying of the desired world view she needs/ wants to inhabit and so on. But Jordan never lets us forget the cost for all this in human terms and that is, ultimately, the point of everything.
The Terrence Howard character, Detective Mercer, is also crucially important as he serves as Erica's more domesticated twin. His own loss is to divorce and it thus takes the form of a dearly loved spouse who, it is implied, could no longer share his principles. The fact that this muted loss is not allowed to be effaced by Erica’s more flagrant one but is, in fact, given equal weight and equal heart-breaking significance as lived experience is another indicator of Jordan’s rare moral seriousness and deep compassion. On a superficial glance Mercer represents the “good cop” of Ridley Scott’s idealistic policiers, but we are meant to actually sympathize with the burden of his virtue in a world in which his absolutes of conscience cannot be easy to maintain. When Erica asks him whether his hands shook when he shot someone he says, “No. That's one of the benefits of being on the right side.” But Howard’s delicate work here suggests that this confidence is not so firm, that its maintenance is a tenuous affair; nonetheless, it’s hugely important to understand that he sees his sense of justice and morality as a very univocal thing. He is confident of its ultimate legitimacy. Any compromise defaces it. His burgeoning friendship with Erica is an important indicator of the manner of his sympathies, an indication that relatability matters much. His suggestion to her that sometimes it is better to forget is not some calloused rejoinder but the exact opposite, a disheartened reference to the sadly quantifiable ingredients that may be necessary for psychic healing. That such healing must be balanced up with memory in order to remain human is at the heart of Jordan’s discourse.
And that's where the remarkable ending comes in. Actually, prior to the “final turn” I began to think there was little left for the film to do to surprise or satisfy me. The only surprise was a negative one in that it appeared the film was entering into a numbingly routine final act climactic show down in which Erica finds the man behind her boyfriend’s killing and confronts him only to, inevitably, be stopped by Mercer who would appear all of a sudden to reassert the proper pc notions of moral conscience in a fracturing world, etc. But that is not what happens. Instead, and radically, we are led to that point, in which Mercer disarms Erica right as she is about to kill the main “face of evil” character, but then “the turn” is that Mercer hands her his gun and allows her to finish the job. He then asks her to shoot him in the shoulder so he can take responsibility. And so he does and she walks away, significantly back through the tunnel of the assault, to be haunted by what she has lost in becoming, not entirely by choice, who she undeniably now is. What prevents this from being boiler plate conservative rhetoric is the fact that it absolutely does not come across as cynical wish fulfillment. Rather, Mercer’s act is what is hugely important here as it is in this that we see how Jordan’s seemingly schematic construction has paid off. As an ending it’s daring precisely because it allows for the inevitable vicarious pleasure to be had in Erica’s actions but it also is designed to just as inevitably lead to a moment of profound moral sacrifice that we are meant to take very seriously and by which we are meant to be moved. Really, the whole impact of everything rests on whether or not we can be. Erica’s earlier killing of Mercer’s mafia nemesis is an act of flailing allegiance that exists as a potentially mitigating element for those unwilling to accept the astringency of Jordan’s scenario. Mercer’s later action could be seen as informed by a sense of appreciation and gratitude, though this lessens some of its potent gratuity. Either way, his surrender to compromise of a significant order is the tragedy of the diminishment of the human; it works to complicate and bedevil any attempt to find rousing vindication or dismissive life lesson in this material. That Jordan risks the “sentimental” reminder of our own humanness and, by extension, weakness, is a rebuke to those who see that acknowledgment as of no consequence. Mercer’s moral concession, after all, is the result of the very depths of his sympathies, the excess of his love.

“I don't want to disappear” is Erica’s flailing admission of desire to hold onto life, some life, any life. Jordan’s film is a tribute to the legitimacy of her very real courage.


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