Starring: Johnny Depp, Marlon Brando, Elpidia Carrillo, Frederic Forrest, Luiz Guzmán, Floyd 'Red Crow' Westerman
Directed by: Johnny Depp
I have to admit that if the delightful Johnny Depp did not only star in but also direct The Brave, it's doubtful I would ever have chosen to watch it. After all, the premise is hardly cheery (young Native American man with no hope for the future sells himself to a snuff movie director then has seven days to say goodbye to his life) and when it was shown at Cannes in 1997 it was universally slated. But you know, I would've been missing out, because The Brave is really quite a special film.
Unlike many of Johnny's films, there is nothing quirky and precious little that is joyful about The Brave. However, the film's central theme sees us squarely in traditional Johnny territory: the isolation of the outsider. Or, at the risk of sounding like the Scottish Executive, social exclusion. Raphael (the young Native American, played of course by Johnny) has been given what we can only call the fuzzy side of the lollipop. He and his wife and kids live in a makeshift ghetto village situated on the slopes of a rubbish tip, in a beaten up old van that looks as if it belongs on the tip. He and the other inhabitants of the village (Native Americans, Hispanic people and assorted 'white trash') represent marginalised cultures, literally live on what affluent Americans throw away, for whom the American Dream (symbolised by a happily smiling white family on a billboard advertising new build houses for 'just' $25,000) is completely unattainable.
Raphael has no job, no money and no future - a 'three times loser' as he's described. He probably has a drink problem, he definitely has a criminal record and he's certainly pretty damn useless about the house: his Hispanic wife Rita (Elpidia Carrillo) is the one who fetches the water, cooks the meals, looks after the children and generally keeps the family together whilst Raphael drifts aimlessly around. (Although of course he is drop dead gorgeous - all hooded eyes, tanned pecs, long dark hair and a glimpse of those famous tattoos - which perhaps explains why Rita didn't sling him out long ago.)
But Raphael has heard from some guy in a bar about a job that's on offer, so off he shambles to apply. In a scene that could have come straight from Dead Man, replete with weird staring extras, opaque dialogue and a lot of meaningful nods and pauses, Raphael is offered the job (although at this point we're still not entirely sure what the job is) by a thoroughly unpleasant and sadistic individual called Larry, and is sent downstairs to meet the boss.
Raphael's descent into the bowels of the dilapidated warehouse is literally a descent into hell, where he will sell his soul to the devil in return for a bag of silver. Please allow me to introduce Mr McCarthy, aka Marlon Brando, a sinister figure in a wheelchair who looks as if he's wearing a fat suit (except of course he isn't). Another confusing interchange in which questions are asked but never quite answered, and we begin to realise with a growing sense of horror just exactly what kind of hellish bargain Raphael is letting himself in for. His life, in return for a fat cash payment. And the price for his life? $50,000. The cost of two new build homes in the desert.
Chillingly charismatic, Brando's silver-tongued wheelchair philosopher tries to justify what he's doing by describing the making of snuff movies (although that nasty term is never heard in the film) as a kind of public service that allows cowardly people to gain courage vicariously by watching others face up to death. 'It is the final measure of bravery to stand up to death,' he claims.
As Raphael hurries to escape McCarthy's warehouse, clutching a paper bag stuffed with cash, he finds himself momentarily trapped, just as he is trapped by his futile life and by the devil's deal he has made. Yet in the seven days he has left, he can do his best to open the door so his family can escape into a new life. Perhaps building a junkyard adventure playground paradise for his kids isn't an obvious place to start (Rita clearly doesn't think so, rewarding his efforts with a sock in the jaw) but it's his slightly cack-handed way of expressing love for his family (something which clearly, from their bemused reactions, he hasn't really done before) and making the most of their last days together. (Although one does wonder why he doesn't just take the money and run, but I guess it's one of those questions you can't ask - like why doesn't Kate Winslet pull Leonardo DiCaprio onto the raft?)
Anyway. Whilst McCarthy may claim that facing death is the ultimate bravery, Depp's film would seem to say otherwise. Here, the Native American brave's courage is shown by his newfound willingness to stand up to life. Ironically, in the face of death, Raphael learns to embrace life and love and family and friendship and hope and happiness, and to spread a little joy throughout the whole ghetto community.
Raphael's role as an almost Christ-like figure, sacrificing himself for the love of his family, is underlined by a scene in which he must fetch water from the creek for his wife: holding the pails on a stick across his shoulders, he really does look like Jesus (yes, it's a bit of a lazy image, but all the same it's pretty striking).
All in all, The Brave is, well, a brave attempt to create a meaningful and socially responsible movie from subject matter that is unrelentingly grim and depressing (and has a somewhat ghoulish history: the film student who wrote the first screenplay, based on a novel by Gregory MacDonald, ended up killing his wife and daughter and then himself).
Part Cherokee himself and famously passionate about Native American causes, Depp is keen to highlight the terrible deprivation in which many Native Americans and other socially excluded cultures find themselves living. Faith and religion can't help (rejected by the local priest, who cannot condone his suicide, Raphael turns to Native American traditions, but cannot connect with these either); the government won't help. The villagers can only look to themselves to escape the vicious circle of poverty, unemployment, crime and alcoholism portrayed in the film. Characters such as the father and son team, Lou Sr and Lou Jr, who have set up a rig to drill for oil, powered by a huge hamster wheel in which Lou Jr must run all day, symbolise both the futility and the desperate hope of this community of losers and lost souls. They may be at the bottom of the heap, but they aren't going to give up trying to improve their situations.
The eerie and atmospheric score by Iggy Pop (who also makes a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance in the film) recalls Neil Young's music for Dead Man, and this is not the only point of comparison between the two films. Haunting and moving, The Brave, like Jim Jarmusch's movie, is also at times confusing and incoherent. However, it too is a film that lingers in the mind, the uncomfortable issues it deals with and its bleak view of American society not easily dismissed. The extreme plot brings into sharp focus the scandalous social inequality behind it, but I wouldn't call this a preachy film: it simply lays out the facts and allows you to draw your own conclusions. With none of the self-indulgent trappings you might expect from a Hollywood star turned director (Johnny's performance as Raphael is deliberately understated and unheroic - this is no Dances With Wolves) it's interesting though provoking and surprisingly absorbing.
Sure, it drags it's dusty feet a fair bit, but the languid pace helps accumulate an increasing sense of loss and dread as the film builds up to what we fear may be a horrific climax. Fortunately for those of us of a squeamish disposition, the ending remains suitably ambiguous. Raphael is swallowed up into the depths of the hellish warehouse, but we can always believe if we want to that McCarthy has a change of heart and everyone lives happily ever after. Er, yeah.