Tonight, in a spirited conversation about movies prompted by having just seen “A Serious Man” (the wonderful new film by the Coen brothers), I mentioned that I had recently seen Neil Jordan’s intriguing film “The Brave One” – in which Jody Foster plays tha part of Erica Bain, a liberal New York City radio show host who turns into a decidedly unliberal vigilante after her fiancé is killed by vicious thugs.
It is clear that Jordan and screenwriters Roderick and Bruce Taylor are not just trying to put us inside the mind of someone whose grief leads her to become a killer. They want us to sympathize with her choice. Whether this is intended as a political statement or merely an aesthetic exercise is something you’ll need to decide for yourself – the movie doesn’t say. But I am not surprised to see this kind of extreme experiment in bringing the audience to strange places, given that this is the same director who gave us “The Butcher Boy” – a film in which the highly sympathetic protagonist is an extremely likeable child who gradually transforms (while never once losing our sympathy) into a mass murdering psychopath.
What concerns me here are the methods the filmmakers use to bring the audience along in “The Brave One”, as Erica Bain transforms before our eyes from sappy liberal to resolute vigilante killer. The key was provided by my friend, who recalled that not only had the thugs murdered Bain’s fiancé, they had also killed the fiancé’s dog.
For me that was the “aha” moment. In a movie, you can kill people all you want, and that’s ok. You can blow them up, stab them, throw them off buildings, set them on fire, yadda yadda. Audiences take that sort of stuff in stride. You may be a murdering fiend, but in movie logic – as in dream logic – that doesn’t make you a bad person. Maybe you were misunderstood as a child. Maybe you’ll realize the error of your ways and find a way to say you’re sorry before the end credits start to roll.
But if you kill a dog, well then my friend, you have crossed the line. You’ve just bought yourself a one way ticket to Hell, with no refunds allowed. It’s all very ironic, since in real life people kill dogs all the time. We use nice euphemisms like “put to sleep” to make ourselves feel all cozy inside, yet still we kill them – something we’d never dream of so casually doing to humans – and it’s all perfectly legal.
But in the dream logic of movies, audiences understand that killing a dog is evil because a dog is innocent. Theoretically a human can defend himself, is more or less on an equal level with his assailant. But a movie dog is a kind of holy vessel, a creature of God, not to be messed with lightly (except if it’s a comedy – then you can kill them by the bucketload). Millions of people watched stone faced in “Independence Day” as large parts of our planet’s population were snuffed out by alien monsters. But in the midst of all of the horror and mass carnage, the film showed a dog getting away, and audiences cheered.
In other words, without the dog murder at the start of “The Brave One”, it wouldn’t have worked out quite right. If, in the climactic scene, Jody Foster had pointed a gun at a nasty thug merely because he had murdered her fiancé in cold blood, had stared down her assailant and thought about pulling the trigger, audiences might very well have reacted negatively. “Get over yourself lady,” they might have thought, “He may be a cold blooded murderer, but that doesn’t mean he deserves to die. Go find a therapist before you end up hurting somebody.”
But by having the dog get killed, the filmmakers have effectively short-circuited the logic centers in our brains. We’re no longer thinking “Gosh, is taking a life for a life really a wise policy?” No, we’re thinking “You killed a dog. You killed a dog. Die f*cker!”
I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not saying it makes any sense. I’m saying it works precisely because it doesn’t make any actual sense at all.
It’s movie logic.