Tuesday, December 01, 2009
Okay, so I'll come clean from the start- when I'm bored driving, I talk aloud in the voice of Michael Caine. I yammer absolute nonsense; I'll have Caine give instructions on how to make a sandwich ("A proper sandwich starts with good bread- something you'd only give to your mum! Wonder Bread? Nevah!"). Caine is, to me, a freakin' legend. He's a personality beyond that of even some of the best actors working today. He's in the class of Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood. And like Eastwood's "Gran Torino," Caine gets his old-guy hands dirty while battling the local riff-raff in "Harry Brown," a new film by neophyte director Daniel Barber.
This is not an action-movie. Nor is it "On Golden Pond" with guns. This is a rare blend of social commentary mixed with a very poignant character study. It's slow in parts- but underneath everything is this gut-wrenching tension that never feels false or manipulative. The violence (oh there's a decent amount) has weight- when a person gets shot, you see the aftermath and you are left to consider what has happened. And violence is this movie's main obsession- the senseless violence that comes from the drug-dealing gangs that run the neighborhood versus the vigilante violence of Caine's Brown Like many revenge films from decades past (the original "Death Wish" being the most influential), we are left to consider the moral questions that come when a person takes it upon him or herself to bring balance to a situation in which society has little or no control.
As someone who practices the law, I've had it drummed into my head that the legal system is sacrosanct. While imperfect (and certainly very flawed) the law is the last defense against society's downfall. I intellectually buy into that notion- and we have thousands of years of history to consider which bears that out. I recently read an account by the Newsweek reporter who was held prisoner in Iran over the past year- and if there was ever a reason to embrace our screwed up system, it's made clear by Iran's example. But humans abuse, misuse and manipulate the law like they do with anything. And there comes a time when a flawed system becomes a dangerous one because it fails to function. This is where we find Harry Brown- mourning the death of a close friend who was a victim of a horrific murder. When it becomes clear that the killers are not going to be punished, Harry moves into the situation with brutal and focused force. And I found myself empathizing with Harry's decision to act (and disagreeing at the same time).
But this is just a movie, right? We can root for guys like Dirty Harry and Jack Bauer because the alternative is a pretty mundane story. Who wants to watch the police do paperwork? Well, the best part about "Harry Brown" is that it consciously rejects that storytelling cop-out. It forces the viewer to keep in mind that Harry is not only killing the bad guys, but he is causing larger problems along the way. But instead of preaching a message, the film just plays out its events and lets the viewer decide whether Harry made the right choices. This is a cold film, but it's an intellectually honest one.
On the technical aspects, "Brown" is a very solid piece of filmmaking from such a young director. There's a minimalist approach at work here and this allows the actors to create very believable characters. And the character work provides the film with a realism that separates it from other, similar stories. When one of the killers makes sexually threatening remarks to the female investigator, you look to her face and see her react with professional, steady resolve. Words alone cannot convey that quality, only self-assured storytelling. And while there's really no lyrical quality to it, like Eastwood's "Gran Torino," "Brown" succeeds in evoking strong emotions. I don't know which approach I prefer (probably "Torino" because it was far less depressing) but both movies force us to think about the civility we've lost over the past few decades. "Harry Brown" is a sober, difficult film, and one which I highly recommend.