“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic — and a killer.” At any rate, that’s what D.H. Lawrence, a spectacularly ill-informed foreign observer, thought. What rubbish! What nonsense! If there is any such article as “the essential American soul” it is a sentimentalist. Not that that’s incompatible with killing, of course, but it is the sentimentalism that is essential, not the killing. Americans will be quite as happy — maybe even happier — about not-killing as they are about killing, but they just don’t seem to be able, at least in recent years, to do either without a certain amount of self-romanticization. And part of it is the enthusiastic assent they so often give to observations like Lawrence’s, either in dark and shocking portrayals of violence and atrocity or in victim fantasies like Easy Rider. For there does seem to be something in the essential American soul that makes it eager to believe that it is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.
The latest foreigner thus to flatter our self-conceit as the dangerous and romantic bad boy among nations is Neil Jordan, who has been blessed in his new film, The Brave One, to get as his lead actor the cosmopolitan, French-speaking American, Jodie Foster. Jodie plays Erica Bain, the sensitive, caring hostess of a late-night talk show, unfortunately named “Street Walks,” on NPR, in which she laments the disappearance of much-loved landmarks of old New York which have been destroyed by our eager, unstoppable hustle for growth and change — and, of course, money. Erica goes from being a mere sentimentalist to being a sentimentalist with a gun after she is mugged in Central Park and her fiance (Naveen Andrews) is killed by a vicious trio of youths who may be Hispanic but whose ethnicity is left deliberately vague. It is she who quotes D.H. Lawrence, one night on her radio show, after she starts blowing people away with her illegally-obtained Glock 9 mm handgun.
It’s Death Wish meets Girl Power with every bit of the absurdity you might expect from such a conjunction, and it would hardly be worth a second thought but for the reactions it has inspired. Here’s what A.O. Scott said about it in the New York Times: “The Brave One, though well cast and smoothly directed, is just as crude and ugly as you want it to be. And that, the movie insists, is how, in your heart of hearts, you really do want it to be. Its none-too-subtle governing idea is that even the most effete, brownstone-dwelling public radio listener (or New York Times reader) might feel the occasional urge to blow someone’s head off.” Revealing word “someone” — as if blowing off a head at random would satisfy the mere blood lust that Mr. Scott imagines all violence to be, as if it had nothing to do with meting out wild justice — Sir Francis Bacon’s definition of revenge — to vicious killers and other miscellaneous evil-doers.
Note as well the underlying implication that New York Times readers might be expected to be above all that kind of thing. With detective Mercer (Terrence Howard) of the NYPD, writes Mr. Scott, Erica has “a few desultory discussions about the rule of law and the ethics of extrajudicial killing, arguments that are resolved in a climax that manages to be at once preposterous, sentimental and appalling. That it may also be viscerally satisfying is a sign of just how cowardly The Brave One really is. It’s a pro-lynching movie that even liberals can love.”
The word “cowardly” is interesting too. I’m just guessing here, but he seems to mean that if liberals love this movie — and to that extent reveal themselves to be illiberal — it must be the movie-maker’s fault in some way, for not playing fair, for cravenly playing to the lower self that New York Times readers and NPR listeners like to think they have transcended. That doesn’t really account for “cowardly,” but it’s as near as I can get to an explanation for it. The sense of not playing fair, of making us sympathize with a vigilante, is exacerbated by the casting of Jodie Foster in the role of the lyncher. She is so much a part of the liberal’s iconography, her starting point as a wet and self-consciously poetic NPR host so congenial to the liberal idea, that the lib feels personally betrayed when she starts blowing people away.
Likewise, Christopher Orr in the New Republic online calls the movie “a pious little scrap of sleaze” — note the use of a word normally associated with corruption or moral turpitude — “that pretends to furrow its brow thoughtfully over the vengeful violence in which it happily wallows….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?” But to be fair to the film, it doesn’t really insist on Jodie’s agonizing about the deaths she causes. There’s a certain amount of this, especially in the tedious voiceovers about the stranger she has become to herself, which are meant to put some distance between her and responsibility for her actions. But this is overshadowed by the obvious rush it gives her to be prowling the streets with the power in her purse to right some of the wrongs that women and children suffer at the hands of men.
For it’s predatory masculinity that Jodie’s on the prowl for, the predator becoming the prey. This is made explicit when she rescues a drugged-out prostitute from the car of a brute who is holding her captive. Later, when — spoiler alert! — she shoots down one of the thugs who assaulted her, she cries triumphantly: “Who’s the bitch now?” That’s one for the girls’ team. Hurrah! In other words, even when we’re glorying in being — or sympathizing with the victims of — cold, hard killers, there is a moral subtext. What’s interesting is the reluctance of the movies to bring it out into the open, as if it were a shameful secret. And, in a way it is. For more than a generation now the movies have been deeply skeptical about any attempt to give a moral context to violence, even a feminist one. The only way it is allowable is for the emphasis to remain on victimization. Thus even when she becomes a killer, Jodie is still the victim.
“It’s like a movie from the ’70s in that it doesn’t really make any judgment about her, even though she’s ashamed of who she is and hates who she’s become,” Miss Foster told an interviewer for L.A. Weekly. “She is wrong to be doing what she’s doing. I mean, you know that, right? I hope you leave the movie theater feeling disgusted by her path, and by what happens to her. The fact that it’s not wrapped up in a bow might make it difficult for people to understand, but this is a movie about people who are wrong. I can’t say it any clearer than that.” Actually, she could say it clearer than this. She could say it in the movie. Instead, the movie validates her revenge-seeking, and even sees it as romantic and moral, just so long as she feels bad about it afterwards.
This, by the way, is exactly the view of Steven Spielberg’s Munich in which the historical victimization of the Jews is used in the same way that the victimization of women is used here. This is, we remember, a woman who built her career on the foundation of heroic victimhood in Taxi Driver and The Accused. Now that she has got strong, now that she has got a gun, now that no one messes with her without paying a big, big price, are we to ask her to go back to being a pathetic victim again? It would be like asking Israel to disarm. It’s all very well saying she’s wrong, but everything about this movie tells us she’s right, right, right — right down to the fact that she’s entitled to hold on to a self-entitling victimhood in the form of her feelings of remorse and self-estrangement after she kills people. It’s a silly, even a preposterous wish-fulfilling fantasy, but at least it gives me hope that, however circumscribed their moral ambit, Hollywood still acknowledges the existence of heroes.