It's hard not to cringe at the opening of Neil Jordan's moody, upscale revenge drama The Brave One; any drama that starts off this ecstatically happy is clearly just establishing a high-water mark so the inevitable plummet into misery will be even more striking. Jodie Foster begins the film as a successful radio host on the verge of marrying Lost veteran Naveen Andrews; their giggly, giddy relationship is so idealized that the weight of inevitable doom hangs over it even before a random act of violence ends it. After three weeks in a coma, Foster is left to contemplate a newly purchased gun and a shaky sense of resolve that leads her out into the streets, where she tries to become a predator hunting other predators.
It's all been done before, all too often via sleazy rape-revenge films. But director Neil Jordan and his screenwriters (father-and-son team Bruce and Roderick Taylor, plus Cynthia Mort) give the revenge theme a taut, burning internality, as Foster gradually refines her intentions and capabilities, and her emotions start leaking into her sleepy, Garrison Keillor-esque radio show. The smartest touch is her dynamic with detective Terrence Howard, who seems to be trying to reel her back in to sanity. Throughout the film, it's rarely clear exactly how much he knows about her nocturnal activities, and as she cautiously plays him for information, their relationship becomes murky and complicated. And the terrific performances help keep everyone guessing.
There's a fundamental, fascinating hypocrisy at the root of Foster's character: She's a vigilante who's horrified when other people espouse vigilantism, but she doesn't let her own misgivings stop her. She knows she's disintegrating, but if she can take some evildoers down with her, she's willing to relinquish her own morality. (It's so tempting to see this as yet another metaphor for America's post-9/11 foreign policy—particularly the populace's reluctant, tacit acceptance of state torture—that it seems like it's time to found a new anti-war movement: "Get the U.S. out of Iraq to save American cinema from itself.") Jordan can't completely overcome the film's heavy baggage and its roots in an inherently exploitative genre; The Brave One is turgid and grim right up to the point where it starts to visually resemble a third-person shooter game. But the moody tone and carefully balanced drama turn a grubby premise into something unexpectedly elegant.