What in the world is wrong with Jodie Foster? For years, arguably decades, her career has seemed haunted by her turn as Iris Steensma in Taxi Driver, as if the fictional experience of playing a pubescent prostitute had left real-life psychic scars. The theme of victimhood, and specifically predation on women and children, has been a staple of her oeuvre, first in upscale genre films such as The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs and, more recently, in glossy dreck like Panic Room and Flightplan. After those last two films, it was beginning to seem that Foster had become incapable of playing anything other than a Single Mother protecting a Helpless Child from Bad Men--a suspicion that her off-key performance as a Manhattan fixer in Inside Man did little to challenge.
But now Foster has followed her psychological arc to its predictable conclusion, from victim to protector to avenger, and the result is not pretty. The Brave One, the Neil Jordan-directed vigilante flick of which she is the titular star, is a pious little scrap of sleaze, a film that pretends to furrow its brow thoughtfully over the vengeful violence in which it happily wallows.
Foster plays Erica Bain, the voice behind an arty New York radio show called "Streetwalk." (No, no hookers involved. At least not yet.) One night, when she and her fiance David (Lost's Naveen Andrews) are out walking their dog in Central Park, they are beset by a band of leering thugs, who brutally beat Erica into a coma and David into his grave, gleefully filming the whole thing. Once Erica recovers, she buys herself a gun and embarks on a Bronson-like massacre of the usual litany of Big Apple baddies: a gunman in a Korean deli, a pair of after-hours subway predators, a drugged-out pimp intent on collecting drugged-out girls, and a sneering white businessman (who is also, of course, a drug-dealer and wife-murderer and has just recently gotten custody of his sweet, vulnerable little stepdaughter). When not busy popping caps in asses, she conducts a quasi-romantic (though ultimately chaste) game of cat-and-mouse with Mercer (Terrence Howard), the detective investigating the vigilante killings.
Foster's performance will hold no surprises for anyone who saw Panic Room or Flightplan: She stretches her fine features tight in grief and in terror; she stares into the middle distance in shock; she allows herself a few tears before Doing Whatever's Necessary--in this case, killing the motley monsters she seems to encounter at every turn. Early in the film, when she tries to purchase a handgun and is told the waiting period is 30 days, her response--"I won't survive 30 days"--seems laughable. But the Manhattan Jordan conjures is one indeed requiring bravery, an urban jungle in which death by blade or bat or bullet seems the almost inevitable consequence of being out after dark.
Unlike the 70s-era vigilante flicks on which it is patterned, The Brave One justifies its murderousness not merely on law-and-order grounds but on psychological ones as well. Erica is no methodical meter-out of justice, but rather a sad and wounded soul, and the fact that she feels so terrible about what she's done and what's been done to her is not merely an explanation for her actions but a kind of defense as well: How can she be a bad guy, the film seems to ask, when she feels so very crummy?
The greater difference between The Brave One and its antecedents, of course, is one of context. The various Death Wishes and Dirty Harries may have been exploitative but they were, at least, relevant to the anxieties of the times, a kind of overflow of the national id on crime. By contrast, a 2007 movie that presents New York as a bygone paradise slowly descending into urban anarchy isn't merely sleazy, it's dishonest as well, a fiction that seems to take its cues not from any recognizable reality but from its star's evident obsession with victimhood.
As a result, The Brave One is not merely the most morally repellent film of the year, but a contender for the stupidest. Nearly every scene in the film rings false, from a radio interview Detective Mercer gives Erica that would (rightly) get any policeman fired in a New York minute; to her decision to turn her back on a killer pimp for the eternity it takes him to try to run her over with a car; to her radio station's inability to find anything to put on the air (umm, maybe a station promo, guys?) when Erica freezes up for a full minute of silence; to the wealthy businessman who breaks her arm with a crowbar because he thinks she's "paparazzi." Even as it presents itself with a kind of weary wordliness, The Brave One displays a profound, almost willful, ignorance about every subject it touches--police procedure, the broadcast industry, basic human behavior, you name it.
As a general rule, I don't reveal endings, but in this case I'm making an exception. (Those who wish to remain innocent, avert your eyes.) At the conclusion of her righteous killing spree, Erica tracks down the ringleader of the gang who killed her fiance and Detective Mercer helps her kill him, even accepting an optional bullet himself in order to ensure she's never caught. For all its showy stabs at remorse, its ostentatious moral handwringing, this is a film that unambiguously endorses vigilante killings--at least, as long as you're Jodie Foster, and you feel really bad about it, and you're doing it all for the kids. Foster, and everyone else involved in making this disgraceful film, should be ashamed.