The Brave One has a strong sense of physicality. That may seem to go without saying — this is, after all, an action movie that features intense personal violence — but it extends beyond the obvious, thanks mostly to its star. Here is Jodie at her most unadorned and most deliberate. While her character may claim to be a voice rather than a face, Jodie’s face often takes up the whole screen, to great effect.
And when she walks, even when she is tense with fear, her signature strut is still strongly in evidence. Foster is all lines and edges, giving form to her character’s sharp desperation.
And what lines and edges they are. The wardrobe department must have taken pains to do justice to Foster’s physique and flair. With her sunglasses and her tank tops and her messenger bag, she is sometimes downright dykey — and always flat-out dreamy.
Jodie is sometimes critiqued for what seem like efforts to appear feminine in public, but glamour has no place in Erica Bain’s life. She’s not always butch, but she is certainly better termed cute than pretty. That makes the character likely to stand as one of the truer (and more stunning) cinematic examples of what women really look like.
Whereas Foster has been almost unrecognizable in some of her films — consider Inside Man or, if you must, Anna and the King — she seems very much herself here, or rather, a lot like we have imagined her.
In her long career, Foster has been widely adored. But her accessibility is put to the test in this role: Her character is on some level a cold-blooded killer. Can she still come across as the girl next door — or a girl at all, if she’s packing heat?
The strangeness of the idea of a female vigilante is acknowledged but not explored in the film. One of the police officers notes that women don’t kill randomly; they kill “s— they love.” Erica is in no way typically feminine; although she saves, she also harms. And unlike most movie heroines, she serves her own purposes rather than those of her man or her family. But her self-interest and strength aren’t necessarily unfeminine, either; she is essentially sexless when she kills. Gender is just another of the rules The Brave One flouts, again partly because of Foster’s own androgyny and malleability.
That’s not to say she’s not sexy: That’s why she’s sexy. As the embraces her baser urges, Erica seems to stop thinking about her appearance altogether, focused as she is on deeper concerns. Rather than transcending the workaday world by moving through it as a voice rather than a face, she transcends it by presenting her face just as it is, with no mask of charisma or cosmetics. (The one time she puts on makeup, it is an attempt to see herself as she used to be and to blend into a crowd.)
At her most vengeful, Erica exhibits an intensity and single-minded purpose that are rarely seen on female faces, especially in movies. A witness to one of her crimes notes that she looks like she is “on lockdown, shut off.” He calls it scary; you can also call it hot.
There are a few missteps in The Brave One, including a subplot about the divorce of Terrence Howard’s character, Detective Mercer, but Howard gives a stand-out performance and has a surprising chemistry with Foster. The film is at times heavy-handed; the overuse of the term stranger and the use of the song “You Don’t Know Me” are the best examples of bludgeoning. And references to Emily Dickinson and D.H. Lawrence come off as pretentious — why reach for the bookshelf when you have a two-time Oscar-winner making her own art on the screen?
But Erica and Mercer generally say only what needs to be said. Add engaging smaller parts for Mary Steenburgen, Zoe Kravitz and Jane Adams, and the overall result is a well-oiled cast working with a well-crafted script.
Perhaps the bravest thing about the movie is that despite its careful structure, there is no underlying sense of order. Erica doesn’t follow the law, but neither does she follow her own inner sense of logic or any other system. We don’t fully know what drives her to buy the gun (beyond a blank, consuming fear), and it seems she hasn’t fully asked herself why, either, possibly because she has moved out of the realm of considered action into instinct.
Halfway through the film (after her second kill and her first realization that she is not acting entirely in self-defense), Erica wonders whether she is finding “these things” or they are finding her. But there’s no sense of fatalism or any blame placed elsewhere. The movie includes some discussion of terrorism and similarly broad concepts of security, but no overarching social commentary.
This is one woman’s — one person’s — story, and she presents only one answer to the question, “What would you do if this happened to you?” She presents it, but she does not explain it.
Whether you prefer shoot-em-ups or thought experiments, you’ll likely respond to The Brave One and find it exceptionally entertaining. And if you’re a fan of Jodie Foster, you’ll probably see it at least twice. You’ll hope that should you ever find yourself needing to right a wrong, she’ll show up, her steady hands cradling a 9 mm automatic and her angular face reminding you that sometimes, you just have to act.