A few weeks ago I posted a short review of the awful Kevin Bacon flick Death Sentence, an insipid and poorly constructed little revenge drama. I received this response, from points unknown:
So 7 Red prefers Zodiac’s celebration of due process and The Wire’s attention to bureaucratic and historical baggage to the rejuvenated revenge fantasies offered by Kevin Bacon and Jodi Foster? Take THAT, liberal media!
The point—and I’m guessing here—is that I am some sort of dupe for the fetishes of liberalism, because I like the “celebration of due process” in Zodiac (a more bizarre characterization of the film I cannot imagine), and the “bureaucratic and historical baggage” of The Wire (I’m still trying to figure out what this one means), while I bash and bash and bash the “rejuvenated” revenge fantasies (was the genre ever stagnant?) that cropped up in the cinema last year.
Never mind that all of these productions emanate from the same supposed liberal media. Never mind that labeling Death Sentence and The Brave One a rejuvenation of the revenge fantasy, a rejuvenation that indicates some larger post 9/11 cultural phenomenon, likely began in that rattrap of due-process lovin’ and bureaucratic-historical valorizin’ known as the New York Times itself. And never mind that the responder probably had tongue firmly in cheek: I can’t imagine that people I don’t know read this blog, and I’m well convinced that I don’t know anybody who would use the phrase “liberal media” unironically. Never mind all that. I’m willing to play the believing game on this one and take it as a serious critique. The initial problem for the argument was that I hadn’t seen The Brave One (or commented on it), so I couldn’t be sure if I was truly getting all gaga over due process and bureaucratic historical baggage thanks to the predatory propagandizing for 1970’s liberal values that so clearly characterizes our contemporary media phylum.
So when The Brave One became available through pay-per-view, I knew I had to check it out, if only to test my core liberal value of letting brutal criminals off the hizzook (because of history, you know?). And I don’t agree at all. I think The Brave One is a smart and remarkable film, even if I’m not jumping on the metaphorical troop transport or reviewing Charles Bronson’s collected works on urban renewal just yet. It’s remarkable for two reasons. First, it’s a gripping study of perception, and particularly auditory perception, a strange move for a film. Second, it doesn’t really seem to be about revenge so much as it is about transformation, and what happens when the euphoria of a transformative process crashes back down into a new routine.
Foster plays Erica Baine, a radio host for a poetic and nostalgic show about the way New York is changing. She walks around the city with a giant microphone taping the sounds of trains running overhead and Latino teenagers playing handball, that most New York of New York games, then goes into the radio station and waxes eloquent about Edgar Allen Poe and monkeys at the slips of the old South Street Seaport. Will we lose the old New York? Will it just be a memory that we hold in our limbs? That sort of thing. Her nostalgia for the old New York might be one of her liberal credentials; her goofy Capri pants and bike messenger bag another; her distinctly white wine sipping artist friend essentially seals the deal. She’s living in a fantasy world.
To be brief on plot, Baine is engaged to doctor and decidedly non-white David Kirmani, played by Lost eye-candy Naveen Andrews. Kirmani and Baine are brutally attacked by a gang of muggers in Central Park, with Kirmani beaten to death and Baine just barely pulling through. She then has the bad luck to witness another murder, a domestic killing in a bodega, but this time she’s prepared: packing an illegal gun (she couldn’t hack the 30-day waiting period), she shoots the killer through a juice bottle. Presumably finding this version more pleasurable than waiting on the desk jockey cops to solve Kirmani’s murder, she sets out on a vigilante quest, blasting various wrongdoers with Bernie Goetz style eloquence as she is inexorably drawn toward the final confrontation with Kirmani’s psychotic killers.
Mixed up in her murder spree is Detective Mercer, played by the decidedly non-white Terrence Howard. (Indeed, the film gets around the very convincing charges of racism lodged against earlier vigilante flicks by making damn sure that virtually everyone in the film who is not Jodie Foster is also not white like Jodie Foster; Death Sentence gets around the same problem by making the criminal gang rather preposterously multicultural). A secret listener of Baine’s show, Mercer appears to have some role in every murder investigation in the City of New York, not least being the one involving this new vigilante who has the notorious New York tabloids all abuzz. Needless to say, he develops a relationship with Baine, thinking at first that it is about interviewing him for his favorite radio show, then befriending her, and finally, slowly, coming to an awareness about her possible activities. If there’s an ethical component to the film, it has nothing to do with Foster’s character. The subject of the ethical quandary is good cop Detective Mercer, who has asked himself since his beat days whether he would have the fortitude to “arrest somebody he knows well,” like a best friend. His answer heretofore has been a resounding yes—he’s a man of the Law, you see, and the Law doesn’t distinguish between the friend and the stranger—but events will test that. Howard is once again sterling in his performance; few can play the move from naivety to revelation very subtly, but Howard pulls off the “AHA!” in small, poignant increments without making it ridiculous.
THE SOUND OF THE DISASTER
The plot is organized around a series of audible events at the same time that it moves toward the visible. Baine is insistent that her show is a radio show; early on we see her refusing requests to meet with the people from Bravo for a television version. There’s something about the sound of a city that fascinates her; she goes home and listens to her sound recordings of mundane events around the city. Later, she will record her vigilante slayings and listen to those, too. Just before the fatal mugging that sets the story in motion, we get two sound events. The dog, who has run into one of those menacing Central Park tunnels, has stopped its barking, the negative event. Then we get the money shot: we hear the sound of a plane flying low over Manhattan, a sound that faintly colors Baine and Kirmani’s dialogue about their future together. I guess we can’t accuse Neil Jordan of being particularly subtle, but it certainly injects the requisite foreboding into the scene. Significantly (I guess), the thugs have brought along their video camera for the attack; as with al Qaeda, the violence is not real if it’s not captured in its visual horror.
Sound also plays a role in the other death scenes. In the bodega, Baine is given away when her cell phone starts ringing. The murderer searches the aisles for her, whispering “I can hear you breathing” just before he catches one in the throat. On the subway, two thugs rob a stoner boy who’s listening to his iPod. “Whatchoo listenin’ to?” one says. The stoner is predictably unaware of his surroundings until they pull his iPod away and start smacking him up. “Radiohead,” he responds meekly. When they approach Baine they ask, mockingly, “You got some Radiohead for me, too?” Get it? Radio head? You can guess the next sound you hear after that. The sound events pile up: the clicking locks of a car door that signal a threat, the dinging of an elevator that drives Mercer’s epiphany, the ringing cell phone that identifies a killer’s girlfriend. It’s all juxtaposed against visual perception, which is at once too raw, too flawed, and too obviously mediated. The stoner boy’s description of Baine for a police sketch artist ends up looking like Jennifer Aniston. But sound, you see, is real. And it’s the video of the mugging, of Kirmani’s murder – conveyed, tellingly, as a cell phone message attachment – that sets off the closing action.
Apart from the sheer cleverness of it, I’m not quite sure what to make of the film’s commitment to sound. If these “revenge dramas,” which seem to have very little to do with actual street crime, inevitably refer us to 9/11, it may signal the failure of the visual. What I got from being in Lower Manhattan that morning (apart from constant, intractable anger and an utter incapacity to act) was the sound of the disaster, a sound that I haven’t heard replicated in any recording. But I know what Foster’s character is doing when she listens to the recordings of New York, and then of her revenge killings. She’s listening for that sound. And it’s not there. If there was something shocking about the event – in Benjamin’s sense – it wasn’t the visual; if there was some aesthetic sublimity to it – in the Kantian sense – it wasn’t the video. This is a strange argument to come from a filmmaker. Perhaps we’ve had our fill of the visual; perhaps it’s too easy.
Or, alternatively, it may be that the commitment to sound is the ultimate form of Baine’s nostalgia. And this would be not just nostalgia as the waning of the sound era, the vinyl heads and radio heads, but nostalgia for the moment. Where the video seems to bring it back complete, the sound always comes up missing something, and what is missing serves as the basis for that nostalgia. Sound is that which cannot – for all our digital accuracy – be mechanically reproduced. Once Baine gets the cell phone video of the mugging, the sound events end; if she’s been transformed into something else, it is not the brave one, but the deaf one. The film is done with sound, with the authentic relation to the event. But maybe it’s not so easy.
At the very least, Neil Jordan’s attention to the sounds of the city signals an expansion or difference of perception. You’re forced to pay attention to the sounds of the film; the sheer prevalence of sound events produces a listening subject in the viewer. You could read this, at worst, as the very conservative notion of increased awareness, where the expanded field of perception relative to the film represents our supposedly expanded perception relative to the terrorist threat. Put another way, The Brave One replays in cinematic form the transformation of perception required to handle terrorism. We’re now on the lookout for the proverbial “Arab crop duster,” a perception that would have been impossible before. The threat is now on our cultural radar, beeping, beeping. Can you hear it? That’s certainly one way to see it. But Baine’s transformation seems to follow a different trajectory: she begins as a sound freak, and progressively shuts out sound in favor of vision. If anything, her transformation is about a subtraction from the perceptual field, not an addition. In this way, the trajectory of the character is in conflict with the trajectory of the viewer. Indeed, the final scene of the film literally makes no sense for any viewer who has become accustomed to the logic of sound. It presupposes a world in which the entire city, or at least one particular housing project, cannot hear anything. The film’s concluding scene falls apart if sound constitutes evidence.
Like Death Sentence and other films in the genre, then, The Brave One is about transformation. Conservatives may see this positively: the soft bourgeois tendencies of the American polity were transformed by 9/11; the whole society is now the liberal who has become conservative after being mugged. This is presumably why people who have been duped by the “liberal media” would dislike the “rejuvenated” revenge fantasy genre; they want to hold on to the “celebration of due process” and “bureaucratic and (notably) historical baggage” of the pre-mugging liberal culture. They want to reject the transformation.
The Brave One certainly plays up the theme of transformation. Visually, Foster changes from a kind of hipster casualness to action hero hard core. If we’re too dumb to notice that her leather jacket is straight out of Death Wish 3, Neil Jordan makes good and sure that we do by having Mercer comment on it. But the real trope of transformation comes through Foster’s voice over, presumably a set of notes for Baine’s radio show. And the key trope there is the presence of the Stranger. Baine notes after her subway vigilantism that a Stranger is now growing in her body, using its limbs, its mouth. This is a classic trope of becoming, the liminal space, the transition phase. And Jordan plays it just right; it is, in the trajectory of the film, the sequence of delirious pleasure, the highest energy and maximum euphoria. The build-up around each set of doomed villains is increasingly laughable, their one-dimensionality as Despicable Predators increasingly satisfying. Baine’s subjectivity is displaced, her control over those limbs very tenuous. The viewer, like Baine, experiences a certain ecstasy – not outside the body, but within.
The traditional revenge drama manages to hold this ecstatic position through the film and even close with it. The final satisfaction still reels with it; it’s why there can be a Death Wish 2. Both Death Sentence and The Brave One, on the other hand, close very differently. The transition phase, at the end of each film, is complete, the affect exhausted. Baine ends the film by noting that (and I’m paraphrasing here) “You can never go back. The Stranger is all that’s there now.” As a critique of liberal nostalgia for the pre-mugging days, this is about as compact and essential as it comes. But it also signals the exhaustion of that affective energy that accompanied the transformation. The film manages to work that let down even into the vigilante killings themselves. The villains never really get the sense of awareness that they’re being punished. When Baine encounters one of the original muggers in a housing project, he asks whether she wants drugs. She says “I want my dog back,” and immediately shoots him. But it’s unsatisfying because we never get the moment of recognition, his awareness that he is being killed for a specific reason, as revenge for the Kirmani slaying. Death Sentence gives us that in bucketfuls; The Brave One is better because it short-circuits the rites of recognition so central to the revenge genre. It’s all too quick. And the let down is distinct.
The let down is all that’s there now. If these films register anything about the culture, it is not the ethical question of revenge (right or wrong, etc.), but the exhaustion that follows transformation, the dead zone of becoming. Death Sentence does this too, but not nearly as well. That’s where they’re historically situated, in any case. Both films come far too late after 9/11 to constitute responses to that event. Rather, they are responses to the affective energy that marked the response to that event, an unsustainable energy, and its bitter waning as the cultural revenge dramas in Iraq and Afghanistan wear on and on and on. Response to a response, the reterritorialization that followed the euphoric line of flight, or the depression of the dialectic that now seems frozen.
The Stranger is all there is now. Yes. Absolutely. A better comment on the contemporary American scene would be hard to produce. But that’s a moment of exhaustion, not rejuvenation. One might even say that these films are not revenge fantasies at all; the revenge is past, the fantasy lived out already, finished. They’re more about what happens when your fantasy becomes reality, and the crushing affective collapse of that.