Jodie Foster, Neil Jordan Merge Brilliantly for Tale of Hell

Running Time 119 minutes
Directed by Neil Jordan
Written by Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor, Cynthia Mort
Starring Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard

Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, from a screenplay by Roderick Taylor, Bruce A. Taylor and Cynthia Mort, based on a story by Roderick Taylor and Bruce A. Taylor, demonstrates once and for all that nobody but nobody can mess around with Jodie Foster and get away with it. From the time of her prodigious childhood and adolescence on the screen, her mesmerizing blue eyes and intelligent good looks have stamped her as the kind of creature with whom no man can idly trifle, much less assault and violate, as a bunch of hooligans do at the very outset of The Brave One.

Ms. Foster’s Erica Bain conducts a radio show prevocational titled “Street Walk,” on which she speaks lyrically of the city she loves as she walks New York’s streets with apparently aimless abandon. The burden on Mr. Jordan and his cinematographer, Philippe Rousselot, was clearly to avoid all the visual clichés associated with the most photographed city in the world, and in this they have mostly succeeded. A burden is placed also on the screenplay to make spoken prose plausibly engrossing even for an NPR cult-radio audience. As an NPR cult-radio devotee myself, I found the Bain monologues reasonably diverting, though I always kept Jodie’s visual presence in her total career in my mind for added plausibility.

One evening when Erica and her lover, David Kirmani (Naveen Andrews), are walking Erica’s dog in Central Park, the dog disappears into a tunnel. When Erica and David, who have been previously joking about their impending marriage, venture into the tunnel to find the dog, they are ambushed by a trio of street people, who bash them mercilessly. David is killed outright, and Erica is assaulted literally to within an inch of her life. It takes months for her to recover physically, but her trauma lingers long after she is able to navigate her once beloved, but now constantly menacing, streets and subways.

When Erica goes to a gun shop to purchase a weapon for her own protection, New York’s tough gun laws make it difficult for her to do so legally. A customer nearby catches up with her after she leaves the shop and offers to provide an automatic for a price. She accepts, and now she is armed and, as it predictably turns out, dangerous. What follows is a reprise of the Death Wish genre, but we are much more emotionally and dramatically involved in Erica’s transition to anonymous avenger than is usually the case. Mr. Jordan has set the stage for his vigilante with an arresting sequence of impressionistic images of a woman’s love-lost soul in torment.

All of Erica’s victims are shown to have been amply deserving of vigilante violence, and the public thoroughly approves, much to the discomfiture of conscientious homicide detective Sean Mercer (Terrence Howard). Even before he begins to suspect Erica of the mysterious murders, he enters into a platonic relationship with her, during which he confesses to her that he has always listened to her radio program. Actually, the first contact is made by Erica, when she returns to the scene of one of her “crimes,” and witnesses Mercer in action trying to track down the culprit, still thought to be a man. It might be noted at this point that it was Ms. Foster who suggested to the screenwriters that Erica is be made an NPR-type radio commentator.

When Erica requests an interview with Mercer for her radio program, he grants the request with exceptional graciousness, and that is about as far as they ever go in the realm of personal intimacy, which is one of the surprises in the narrative. Another is the trick ending, which you may choose not to believe, but which you cannot resist enjoying, particularly with an unexpected laugh inserted to ease the tension.

Ms. Foster at 44 is still a knockout, and can look back with justifiable pride on a long and varied career on both sides of the camera, during which she has made films in three languages; won two Oscars before she was 30, with Jonathan Kaplan’s The Accused (1988) and Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991); and gained widespread recognition for her changeling childhood character in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), and universal acclaim when she was 13 for Iris, the teenage tart in Mr. Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). This latter performance allegedly inspired John Hinckley’s attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, a left-handed publicity bonanza if ever there was one. Hence, when her time came to “graduate” to adult roles, the casting eminences thought of her not for romantic leads, but for sex, sex, sex, the rawer, the better.

She simply kept working here and abroad, never setting box office records until The Silence of the Lambs, in which she had a great part, though with the most bizarre of love interests in the Hannibal Lecter of Anthony Hopkins. That she escaped a gruesome death in the film is a tribute to the toughness and tenacity that have typified both her life and her work.

Ms. Foster also had a hand in landing Mr. Jordan as her director in a project that was reportedly passed over by Nicole Kidman and director George Miller. The 57-year-old Dublin-born Mr. Jordan has, in addition to his novels and short stories, directed 13 films with a blend of quirky, gutsy whimsy that, more often than not, is punctuated if not saturated with violence. His best known efforts are Mona Lisa (1986), The Miracle (1991), The Crying Game (1992), Interview With the Vampire (1994) and Breakfast on Pluto (2005).

In any event, the creative marriage of Ms. Foster and Mr. Jordan is one made in heaven, admittedly in its most hellish precincts. Nicky Katt as Mercer’s partner, Detective Vitale, and Mary Steenburgen as Erica’s fatalistic boss, Carol, head a supporting cast that is full of the nitty-gritty of street life in Manhattan. The Brave One has opened the fall movie season with a bang, indeed with a lot of bang, bang, bangs. Don’t miss it.

Jodie Foster, Neil Jordan Merge Brilliantly for Tale of Hell