Jodie Foster returns to her familiar persona, the victim taking back power. Erica Bain is a radio talker engaged to David (Naveen Andrews). The loving couple take an ill-advised walk in Central Park (entering by the Strangers Gate), are viciously attacked. David is killed, Erica is in a coma for weeks. Trying to carry on, Erica visits a gun shop, is told she can't buy a gun without a license and a waiting period. "I won't survive 30 days," she tells the owner. Outside the store, Erica is approached by a man who ends up selling her a black market handgun. Erica will get much use out of this handgun: first in a small food store, when she shoots a gunman who's shot the cashier, his opponent in a custody battle. Next is a subway shooting in which Erica virtually re-creates the Bernhard Goetz incident of , shooting two aggressive black men. Erica also rescues a young, kidnapped prostitute from the back seat of her captor's car: this one goes all wrong, the girl gets hit by the man's car. Erica finds most of this shockingly easy: several times, she says to noone in particular "why did you let me do it?" Each time she acts violently, she knows more intimately how acceptable violence can be in her society. Her boss (Mary Steenburgen) makes her take calls, in keeping with the more tabloid, but successful tone of her radio show. Erica is disgusted by most of the callers. Meanwhile, Erica is getting to know Det. Mercer (Terrence Howard), who's investigating her shootings. He doesn't know it's her, of course, but something intrigues him: he's a fan of her show, and he's fascinated that she's been able to "pull things together." Erica corrects him: you don't pull things together after a trauma like that. You just carry on, but you're a different person, you'll never be who you were. Mercer gets suspicious because a subway witness mentions a blonde woman. Also, there's the killing of businessman and gangster Morrow, the criminal Mercer most wanted to bring down. We know Erica did it, although she paid the price with an injured arm, and easily could have died, but instead she managed to back Morrow off the top of his own parking garage. Mercer puts a trace on the call he got from Erica that night -- she was on Roosevelt Island, the same as Morrow. Mercer tells Erica that he won't let anyone, even his best friend, commit crimes. As for the vigilante: "One more piece of evidence, and she goes down." Erica can't stop, though, in fact she passes up the chance to ID one of the thugs that killed her man: she'd rather take care of him herself. Using her recovered engagement ring, she tracks him down, killing two more men, but he gets the jump on her. Mercer finally catches up, holds the criminal at gunpoint, then switches guns with Erica so she can shoot him without paying a price. Erica hesitates, takes her vengeance. Mercer then forces her to shoot him (non-fatally), to support the story Mercer will tell. Erica leaves, struggling to find her way out of the maze-like housing project.
First and last, The Brave One is a deconstruction or demythification of most vigilante movies, including superhero movies. Specifically, this is a revision of Batman. There are a number of embedded reference to Batman: the name Bain (Bane); the dank, gothic New York locations, full of menace Erica had ignored before; the vigilante's uneasy alliance with police officers; Erica's t-shirt, with its abstract but bat-like print; Erica's habit of changing her appearance, her clothes, after each violence. At one point, someone asks "Who the hell are you?" and you half-expect ... but no, she merely says, "I'm nobody," as the movie undercuts vigilante heroics.
I liked the way that Erica, though the title character and a rapidly-evolving badass, isn't necessarily so good at what she's doing: she gets nervous and makes mistakes, almost getting Chloe killed.
Before asking Erica to identify herself, Chloe asks "Is this still America?" I thought this was one of the film's few missteps, too on the nose. More subtle is the implication of the vigilante's name: "I am Erica Bain" easily bends to "I am America's bane," and even "I am the bane of America in error." There's also a link, intentional or not, to the DiCaprio character in Inception, when the aging Erica waxes poetic (on her radio show) about how we'll need to construct "artificial cities to house our memories."
This is one of those films that aims to be both a mass-market genre piece and a smart subversion of the genre and its values. It succeeds on both fronts, but with this type of film, I always feel a sense of loss, of compromises made (as opposed to say Taxi Driver, which doesn't give a f*** who sees it), but the compromises here are tolerable. The compensations are vast: the huge star power of both Jodie Foster and Terrence Howard (mercifully, Howard doesn't attempt a New York accent; Tim Roth gave a game try in Arbitrage, but it was distracting), beautiful cinematography, and the professionally invisible direction of Neil Jordan.
The film's flaw came into focus while listening to extras, in which Foster says that Erica's actions are definitely wrong. That may be, but I'm not sure I got that from the picture: I really had no problem with what Erica did. This is not a young woman, she's just had her heart ripped out by goons who felt like being animals. She feels her life is over, and she is afraid, so she buys a gun (illegally, but she might have gotten a legal one a month later). I felt no grief over those she killed, they were all deadbeats and the world's better off without them. If the film really wanted us to question vigilantism, she should have had at least one innocent victim, but I didn't notice any.
So yeah, maybe the film wants to have it both ways. But at least it's made very plain that Erica is unbalanced and traumatized, and will be for any forseeable future. Unlike Batman, she is not acting in a quasi-official capacity, except during the climax when Mercer collaborates with her, presumably to finish her trail of revenge.