Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Death Wish/The Brave One Redux, or Further On The Myth of Vigilante Justice

"You don't look too bad - here's another."

In the light of Death Wish, it's easier to understand - and countenance - The Brave One as an act of genre subversion. Not only do the two play almost shot-for-shot at times, but the narrative of both movies conforms to the same rigid structure, beat-for-beat - a structure, ironically, largely dictated by Death Wish, a book whose author hated the movie because it advocated vigilantism. And yet they arrive at points whose opposition to one another couldn't have been better if the writers had actually been playing Duellin' Screenplays.

An early scene in The Brave One has Jodie Foster's Erica Bain staring up at a larger-than-life photo in an art gallery, of a gun store frontage. If one were prone to overanalysing composition (and one is not, believing this method prone to divulging most any which point the author wishes to make while willfully casting aside any hope of analysing a piece of film with the awareness that this is a technical product subject to onset issues of practicality... but if one WAS), one could say a lot about this sequence of shots.

Erica, still in her happy place, stands dwarfed and impressed by the image, a doorway over which hangs a slightly cartoonish three-dimensional revolver. One could point out that the shot compresses the distance and enlarges the frontage even further, pulling Erica into its looming doorway. One could make much of the fast that the signage's sculpted handgun is angled so Foster - and the viewer - are looking right down the barrel. One would doubtless wryly note that Erica, when expressing her admiration of the piece, enthuses that it exudes realness: by being photographed, blown up and hung in an art gallery, such a thing becomes art, fiction, a sliver of narrative - but its accessibility nonetheless has reached her. And at any rate, one would not be surprised when, a half-hour-odd later, Erica needs a gun and this very gun shop is the place she goes.

This scene seemed pat to me at first - an obvious bit of foreshadowing followed by an over-neat payoff. (The only thing that stuck with me was how beautifully it was photographed: as much care has been paid to isolating and lovingly lighting specific objects in the background as the protagonists themselves, which seems something of an obvious statement of intent that's not really followed through on). But it makes more sense in the context of its twin scene in Death Wish.

In all probability, whatever lyrical, lasting weight Death Wish manages to attain is due to the Tucson sequence. Bronson's character, Paul Kersey, is in a bad way: his wife's dead, his daughter slipping into catatonia. Paul would appear to be treading the fine line between displaying a stoic refusal to give in to grief, and providing a tragic parody of bereaved machismo. (Actually, by displaying neither life-stopping defeat nor dismissive callowness, he's actually doing a pretty good job, but don't worry, the whole thing'll mess him up soon enough). Paul's urged to take a trip to Arizona to work his architect-magic on a development his firm wants to buy into. Initially hesitant, he goes along for the sake of the work.

In Tucson Paul's urged, by the gee-shucks realtor who'll serve as his guide, to forget his big-city ways and adjust to the Tucson pace. So they take in a "cowboy show", where an old-West tale of thieves ruthlessly gunned down by a square-jawed sheriff is performed for a tourist crowd. The spectators are loving it - how quaint! - but their responses are contrasted with Paul's, who's taking the whole thing rather seriously. His eyes light up and you can see that here's a guy who feels he's bearing witness to a deeper truth.

Shortly following, Paul and the realtor bond over a shooting contest (Paul hasn't fired for years, having been a conscientious objector in the Korean War). And thus he's given a gun. In the Tucson sequence, as in The Brave One's art gallery scene, we've witnessed two inextricably-bound things: how our protagonist first becomes enthralled by the myth of independent street toughness, and where they'll get the gun that enables their becoming a part of that myth.

So if you were explaining Death Wish or The Brave One to someone, what you'd say is that they're both about vigilantism. But if you were explaining at length, what you might actually say is that they're about how two characters, faced with similar circumstances, discover the narrative of street justice, and the process by which they give themselves over to becoming protagonists in a retelling of that narrative. What the movies are actually about is people faced with dire circumstances and electing to deal with the fallout by becoming characters in a prewritten story.

And what you might go on to explain is how that narrative bites back. Because what's weird about Death Wish - it being something of a genre-definer here - is how it just knows it has to have The Public Response as a major plot point, and it doesn't really even seem to want to (it'd rather just be 90 minutes of Charles Bronson killing people, unencumbered by narrative or sequential sensibility. It'd rather be Justice Porn). The first time it's stated that Paul's actions are becoming part of a larger narrative is the (unintentionally) funniest moment in Death Wish: a newspaper is slammed onto a table, and the huge-type front-page headline is, "EX-CON SLAIN; KILLER UNKNOWN". What the fuck kind of city is Paul living in? This is like if you picked up the paper tomorrow and the lead headline was "MAN INJECTS OPIATE INTO BLOODSTREAM; CALMNESS ENSUES".

Both Death Wish and The Brave One stop just short of having sensationalist front pages swirling onto a black screen to the sounds of a manic horn section. But in both cases, it's hard not to imagine J. Jonah Jameson sitting in his office barking out the headlines as we'll see them; that's the level of "and now the media will proceed to sensationalise our protagonist's struggle" subtlety on which we're operating. Both movies use the device of media filtration of our character's actions to show that the narrative is now picking them up and sweeping them away, and both movies later use media-relayed citizen interviews to further that story, and add the element where The Common People make it their own.

But after similarly mythologized beginnings, snowballing into similarly "traumatized citizen caught up in mythological whirlwind" narratives, what's lovely is how the two end: as polar opposites.

McKee reminds us that a skillful story is one in which the characters' wants and needs are different, and one where the final frame can see them successful in one respect but failing in another. What we might call the protagonists' material goal in both movies is clear: avenging their loved one's death. But the deeper goal both movies are concerned with is learning a way to keep on living.

Paul Kersey finds a way to keep on living, alright. He never makes any attempt to track down Jeff Goldblum's murderous Jughead lookalike: he just goes round killing folk until the Police run him out of town. The final frame, delightfully, has him smiling like a loon at the idea of having a whole new city full of ne'er-do-wells to callously gun down. His wife hasn't been avenged, his daughter's been indefinitely institutionalised, and one presumes the job that saw him through his rough patch hasn't come with him to Chicago. But none of that matters worth a whit to Paul - who, one feels, if you asked him, "so Paul, four more movies' worth of this sort of thing, eh?", would give that lazy laconic grin and ask where he could sign up.

Whereas Erica's reign of terror is more successful in that she kills more influential criminals, guns down the guys that killed her husband, and manages to get policemen to be a ridiculous degree of sympathetic. So in basic story terms, she's succeeded far more admirably than Paul.

And yet... the way Jordan and Foster tell it, there's no doubt whatsoever that Erica has no fucking idea how to walk this world alone. However you choose to quantify the successes that justify Death Wish's bizarrely upbeat ending, there's no question that Erica has failed in all the exact same ways. The vigilante story that carried Paul so well has failed her completely. All the business of her story is played out, and yet she's got nowhere to go.

This is how The Brave One works as an indictment of vigilante justice: by allowing the story to play out to a degree of success many found just impossible to give credence to, and then leaving its human center in an impossibly lost mess. Through all the bullshit tough-guy swagger - much of it borrowed wholesale from Death Wish - the movie reveals itself as the story of a woman who, really, gets almost absolutely nothing done for herself. It's cruel, and difficult, and - after the progression of more and more cinema-badassery - surprisingly, admirably real.

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