Update: Thanks to everyone who caught the weird cut-and-paste error in the sixth paragraph. I fucking hate Blogger.

Now, I loves me some Jodie Foster, and I loves me some Neil Jordan almost as much. So the general bland badness of their first-ever collaboration, The Brave One, is not just disappointing, it feels like an active betrayal.

It's not, of course. In fact, it's fairly easy to figure out what attracted everyone to this project, and why they thought it was going to turn out to be a really powerful study of violence and catharsis in America. It's just that they were wrong.

The plot is 100% pure Death Wish pablum: Erica Bain (Foster), NPR-esque radio personality and chronicler of New York's romantic history of dilapidation and decay, is out walking with her comically ideal fiancé (Naveen Andrews), when he gets beaten to death and she winds up in a coma. Three weeks later, she comes out of it and goes vigilante on the city's ass, killing anybody who makes her feel "unsafe."

Now, Death Wish is not a very good movie, but there's a zesty trashiness to its exploitation that makes it kind of fun if you're in exactly the right mood (unlike e.g. Death Wish 3, the kind of bad movie that disproves the existence of a loving God). The Brave One is sort of trashy, and it's sort of exploitative, but it is not even a little bit zesty, and this proves to be the film's undoing.

A quick glance at Neil Jordan's CV reveals that he makes one kind of movie, or perhaps I should say he makes many kinds of movies that all have the same mood: a kind of sad fatigue plaguing low-key (and typically low-class) schlubs. That's mostly what's going on here: Erica Bain is a bit too "successful New York art-type" to be a schlub, but she is awfully low-key and fatigued and sad, even before her grim encounter with the hooligans. The problem is that almost all of Jordan's films 'til now have been artsy little chamber dramas in the guise of genre films, and if there's one thing that you'd really rather keep your violent revenge fantasy from being, it's "artsy." That implies that you actually intend for people to take your film very seriously, and if you want people to take your film seriously, you had better not make a film as casually racist and morally diabolical as The Brave One.

Broadly speaking, a revenge film can come in two flavors: rousing and pandering, playing to the crowd's blood lust and giving us our sleazy thrills (I Spit on Your Grave), or hand-wringing studies of guilt and ambivalence that remind us of the terrible psychic toll of committing any murder, even a just one (Munich). Now, both of those kinds of film have their place, I certainly don't want to argue otherwise. But they are fundamentally different, and The Brave One is the work of a filmmaking team with the script for the first kind of revenge film and the desire to make the second kind. This can work - Tarantino got a lot of mileage out of flipping between modes in Kill Bill, for one - but in the current film, there's just too much thematic confusion for the end film to function as much of anything. Everything about Erica's vigilante career suggests that we're supposed to find it exhilarating - the cartoonishly evil villains, the loving close-ups of her gun - but so much of the film is given over to mournful close-ups of Erica's tormented face, and her increasingly ragged narration/radio performances which indicate an ever-growing level of disgust at the idea of vigilantism, it becomes impossible to read the film as mere entertainment. Basically, it's too unpleasantly stern to be exploitation, and too bloodthirsty to be drama. True, this means it is a dismayingly appropriate product of our country's degraded views on torture, but not a very good commentary.

(The original ending might have been enough to tip it into drama - the ending as filmed is ball-shatteringly inappropriate on every level - but even then I think it would have been a band-aid on the film, rather than a fix).

To give credit where it's due, this profound disconnect means that Erica, the primary embodiment of all this ambivalence, turns out to be one hell of a good role for a good actress, and Jodie Foster is more than good, especially in this sort of part. There's something that she does in this film that I can't entirely explain in words, but it's sort of like she turns her face off and gives the impression that her whole body is drooping, without actually doing so. The point (as the many condescending voiceovers make clear) is that "Erica" never really came out of the coma, that what remains is a sort of blankness that has had all of her sense of identity, tied to her sense of "her" New York, literally beaten out of her. That could have been the basis of a really nifty film, but all that remains is Foster's performance, and she nails it. You don't get to say, "her performance is without personality" and mean it as a compliment very often, but that's what Foster does, and it's both perfect and scary.

Terrence Howard, her co-star, is certainly a capable actor, but he's ill-served by the character he has to play, the homicide cop who gets to know and like Erica before he starts to suspect she's behind the killings in his city. There are a lot of places that cliché can go, and in this case Detective Mercer is too inconsistently conceived (he's as brilliant or as dull as the story requires for its continued forward motion), and given too many heaping spoonfuls of awkward exposition to be playable. The third act doesn't do the character a whole lot good either, continuity-wise.

On the level of raw technique, The Brave One is a competent enough affair, with some fairly invigorating compositions. So it's not a total wreck. It's just kind of flat: no energy in the direction, no urgency anywhere, really, besides its lead performance. If there's one thing that a revenge film should never, ever be, it's boring. That, much more than any moral imbalance, is where this film commits its greatest sins.