Thursday, September 22, 2011

Femme Flawed

Foster's turn toward unsympathetic characters

The following post is part of a series of on Jodie Foster specifically, and Hollywood actors generally, as historians.

With The Inside Man (2006), Foster began edging into new territory: playing flawed people whose imperfections are not incidental to who they are, but central to our assessment of them. A character like Sarah Tobias in The Accused was no princess. But it is nevertheless decisively evident that she did not deserve to be raped, and we would still probably like if we got to know her (there’s a wonderful scene, for example, when she connects in mutual fear with a reluctant witness at her trial). Anna Leonowens of Anna and the King had her prejudices, but her heart is always in the right place. So does Dede Tate of Little Man Tate. But in The Inside Man, Foster’s Madeline White – her ironic name refers not to her purity of character, but rather an absence of one – she plays a stylish, intimidating, and amoral political fixer. It’s a small role; this Spike Lee movie features Denzel Washington as a police detective and Clive Owen as the lead bank robber in a memorably complex, cerebral thriller. But it’s among the more vivid in her career, and one that shows her as a powerful figure functioning very successfully in a male dominated world, which amounts to a kind of guilty pleasure in its own right.
            Foster is called in to assist a powerful financier (Christopher Plummer), who happens to have a safe deposit box at the bank being robbed. She silkily navigates her way around the police and even manages to get into the bank to speak with Owen, whereupon she learns that far from incidental, that bank deposit box is central to the whole reason for the heist. It turns out that Plummer’s character is a former Nazi collaborationist whose empire was founded on this original sin, a secret he is desperate to protect. Foster maintains a poker-faced stance toward this revelation, and continues to do a job that involves trying to steer Washington away (in a nice scene in a government building, they literally face off on a marble bench, engaged in low-key rhetorical fencing, during which Washington proves to be a wilier opponent than she expected). Shortly after this, she breezes into the male enclave of an elite men’s barber shop to confront Plummer. He discloses all, confident that the check he holds out at the end of his disquisition will buy her silence. “Well, I’d love to tell you what a monster you are,” she says, taking the money, with a smile, “but I have to help Bin Laden’s nephew buy a co-op on Park Avenue.” The kicker, delivered straight, is a form of blackmail: “We’re listing you as a reference.” In the end, though, it’s Washington who both winks and gets the last word when he breaks into a lunch meeting at a restaurant that includes her and the mayor. He’s now in a position to put Plummer away, and in an inside joke returns the ballpoint pen to Foster that was actually a recording device he used to get incriminating evidence against her. “You made copies?” she asks, seeming to refer to information rather than the pen itself innocuously. “Please,” Washington laughs. He looks at the mayor. “We have to keep the real criminals off the streets.”
              In The Brave One (2007) Foster does become a criminal on the streets, albeit one of a complicated kind. She plays Erica Bain, the host of an NPR-like talk show – Foster really does have a great voice for radio – brutally attacked, along with her fiancé, who is killed, during a nighttime walk in Central Park. Unable to manage her grief, she becomes buys a gun illegally and becomes a vigilante, roaming the streets of the city and killing evildoers – first those she encounters accidentally, and then those she seeks out. She’s befriended by a soulful detective, played by Terence Howard, who becomes increasingly aware, and ambivalent, about her actions.
            The Brave One is an intriguing, but deeply flawed, movie. It can be seen as a kind of bookend with Taxi Driver in the way it resonates with classically Fosterian themes:  the world is a dangerous place, even the presumably cleaned-up New York of the 21st century, and one in which official authority is ineffectual at best. But this time the woman “graduates” to becoming the man with the gun rather than the victimized bystander.
            The problem is that the film’s message is fatally divided.  It’s very clear that Foster intended The Brave One to be a deconstruction of the vigilante genre, in that we see a damaged woman deal with her grief in a dysfunctional way. As she explained to Entertainment Weekly at the time of the movie’s release, “I don’t believe a gun should be in the hand of a thinking, feeling, breathing human being. Americans are filled with rage/fear. And guns are a huge part of our culture. I know I’m crazy because I’m only supposed to say that in Europe. But violence corrupts absolutely. By the end, her [Erica Bain’s] transformation is complete.” Foster’s interviewer noted that members of the audience tend to cheer at the climax of the film, a fact she calls “shameful,” comparing it to those who cheer during a screening of The Accused that she attended. But this is a fundamentally misguided conflation of two very different scenarios. While such a reaction to The Accused is hideous in that it celebrates wonton violence against an innocent person, the rhetorical fingers of The Brave One are on a scale weighted toward seeing the perpetrator of a crime against the protagonist get his comeuppance. The Brave One was helmed by Neil Jordan, the great Irish director, noted for his rich, independent body of work. But it was produced by action-flick impresario Joel Silver, and ultimately the moral logic of the project tips in that direction. Everyone Erica Bain shoots has it coming; we  get no back stories of these people to suggest otherwise. The one person whose situation is the least bit ambiguous is a prostitute who gets hit by the car of a pimp after Bain shoots him, but she may arguably be better off with that as the price of having him dead. If the movie wanted to make the point vigilante justice is immoral, it should have done so more unambiguously. But of course to do that would have compromised the commercial appeal of the project, whose message was plain in the poster that advertised it: A tough, looking, androgynous Foster determinedly pointing a gun.  So while The Brave One is an important document in the evolution of Foster’s artistic/moral/historical vision, it is finally unsatisfying work.

Next: A final Foster post.