The Brave One * 1/2
Jodie Foster rarely stars in a film where she isn't somehow abused, typecasting that has reduced the resourceful actresses to a string of variations on a one-note theme. So it is with "The Brave One," a strange revenge thriller that puts her in the sort of thankless role that would have gone to Ashley Judd a few years ago.
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Word association test. What's the first word to pop into your head? Roses: red. Sugar: sweet. Jodie Foster: victimized.
Foster rarely stars in a film where she isn't somehow abused, typecasting that has reduced one of our most resourceful actresses to performing a string of variations on a plonking, one-note theme.
And so it is with "The Brave One," which puts her in the sort of thankless role that would have gone to Ashley Judd a few years ago. She plays Erica, a New York radio essayist who one fateful night loses her boyfriend, her dog and her moral bearings in a gang attack, and emerges transformed into a pistol-packin' vigilante plagued by emotional demons.
It's as if, three decades after "Taxi Driver," Foster wanted to play the Travis Bickle role. The new film hammers the point home by having her shoot a bodega robber and rescue a young streetwalker from the clutches of a grubby john. I feel I might have seen this somewhere before.
What a strange piece of work this film is, a contraption of clattering implausibility with the lofty tone of an art film and the grim soul of a grindhouse potboiler. Granted, director Neil Jordan has a gift for finding camera tricks that reflect Erica's unmoored mental state, and his vision of New York City as a branch office of hell has a sulfurous punch. But the film requires us to leap through so many hoops of incredulity that we're exhausted.
How are we expected to believe the romantic relationship between Foster and the considerably younger Naveen Andrews, who rub together like two damp sticks incapable of starting a fire? What couple in their right minds would stroll through Central Park late at night, much less enter a murky underpass so ominous it should have "Abandon All Hope" inscribed on its arch?
Who believed that even an actress of Foster's ability could sell scenes where Erica delivers monologues about her tenuous emotional state to her radio audience? How did they decide to film - let alone keep - a leering scene where Foster performs foreplay on a prostitute while her customer urges Foster on, croaking, "She needs a mommy. Are you a mommy?"
And why did they decide to express Erica's displaced grief as a fixation on finding her lost doggie, turning the film into a warped version of "Lassie, Come Home"? Foster's ability to keep a steady face while clearly suffering inside is one of her best aptitudes as an actress, but you wonder if she needed it here just to get through the film.
Terrence Howard provides a stabilizing, real-world influence as the morally ambiguous Detective Mercer. He suspects that Erica might be the city's anonymous avenging angel, and nudges her toward a brute whose wealth places him beyond the reach of courtroom justice.
At the same time he warns her that the unknown killer is very close to being captured. Is he trying to use her? Protect her? Close two cases simultaneously? Howard's sensitive performance suggests that, until the film's final moments, Mercer's not sure, either. When he finally does choose, the line dividing law enforcement from hunt-'em-down-like-animals retribution becomes meaningless and his character becomes a hypocrite.
Foster isn't the only one abused in this film. Viewers are, too.