Monday, May 24, 2010
Michael Caine and Harry Brown
Since hitting British film like a shotgun blast in the mid-60s, Caine has, to name just a very few, played one of the cruelest protagonists in film history in Get Carter (1971), became one of the suavest of ladies men in Alfie (1966) and effortlessly became a cloistered intellectual in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). The reason why Michael Caine has been able to cover this range lies in his unique ability to convey a blend of tough-guy grit and intelligent cool; he's like Sean Connery but with a greater range of emotion (a.k.a. the ability to act). Much of it lies in Caine's voice. He has a strong cockney accent, which is instantly recognizable and can stop a train in its tracks when his anger gets up to full speed. But Caine has never used his distinctive voice as an acting crutch (like, say, Al "Let's Yell Every Fifth Line" Pacino over the past fifteen years) instead, he takes full advantage of silence, and some of his most powerful lines are whispered or delivered extremely slowly. Harry Brown, his first truly starring role since the underrated The Statement (2003), allows Caine to revel in anger, and also gives him some of the quietest and most poignant scenes of his career. The film is carried by Caine's performance, but it's also a complicated story of revenge and justice, that poses important questions while not preaching to the audience.
Harry Brown, a retired former Marine (this detail is important), lives in one of those British housing projects that seemed like a great idea after WWII. Designed to provide affordable housing to working class people, more than a few of whom had their houses blown up by the Nazis, many of these council estates now have reputations as high-crime areas with serious drink and drug problems. Brown's estate has been overrun by teenagers who terrorize the locals. The film begins with a very graphic video shot on a camera phone of teenagers smoking crack (maybe meth? it was hard to tell), killing a woman and then driving head-on into a truck.
Brown's morning routine involves quietly making himself tea and toast, eating alone and then putting on a suit to visit his dying wife in the hospital. Brown then goes to the council pub to play chess with Leonard, who seems to be his only friend. The relationship between Brown and his wife is only briefly sketched out, and a little more depth would have gone a long way. Yet there's no denying that you feel for Harry when he finally gets the call about his wife. The night she dies Harry has to rush to the hospital, and he must decide if he's going to take a pedestrian subway that runs underneath a large road. The subway, which looks like a drainage ditch, is where the council thugs hang out at night, it's a faster way to the hospital but he could be beat up if he goes through it. The scene where Harry is standing in the rain at night trying to decide if it's worth it is a heartbreaking moment. He goes the long way, and his wife is already gone when he gets there. The film doesn't condescend to the audience by saying something like "oh if only you got here two minutes ago," but the thought that maybe he could have made it in time is powerful enough.
A few days after his wife's funeral, Leonard is killed in the pedestrian subway. Leonard was tired of being scared by the teenagers and he took a military bayonet into the subway in order to stand up to the kids. Brown is devastated, and Caine does a good job of presenting his character's grief honestly and without mawkish sentimentality. He's lost the two most important people in his life in the span of about a week, and he cries, and then he gets really drunk. This is Brown at his most vulnerable; he's stumbling, with a mixture of age and drink, he looks pale and weak. It's more than a little shocking to see Michael Caine in such a vulnerable position; even playing the elders in recent films such as The Dark Knight (2008) or Children of Men (2006) he still has his wits about him and looks strong. On his drunken walk home he's confronted by a junkie with a knife, the junkie lunges and Brown, instinctively yet realistically, turns the knife on his attacker and kills him.
And that's when Harry realizes he can do something about his friend's murder. From there he goes on a revenge spree that's as satisfying for the viewer as it is terrifying for the gangs. Revenge films, which run the qualify gambit from The Last House on the Left to Taxi Driver, are most effective when the audience is made implicit in the revenge by approving of it, yet also feel guilty for cheering on such terrible violence.
It's hard not to root for Harry, but the film does complicate our feelings for his crusade. For example, there's one member of the gang, Marky, that draws our sympathy. We learn that Marky has been in multiple foster homes and made allegations of sexual abuse, and he's still being abused by the estate's main heroin supplier. Marky is shy, nearly confesses to the police and generally appears to be the nicest of these vicious gang members; especially compared to the gang leader Noel, played brilliantly evil by Ben Drew. Yet Marky is also the one who filmed Leonard's murder on his camera phone, and ultimately he didn't step in to stop the attack. So what should we do with Marky? Clearly warped by abuse and the poverty of his surroundings it's hard not to think that if anyone deserves a second chance it's him. But ultimately....well I bet you could guess what happens to him.
A major flaw in the revenge film genre is it's treatment of the targets, which borders, and sometimes flagrantly flies into, the racist, classist and generally offensive. Oftentimes the targets of revenge are poor (Harry Brown), not-white (Death Wish, Gran Torino, multiple westerns, etc) or both. The bad guys seem bad for no reason, and these films don't take time to examine why crime happens in housing projects nor is the film particularly interested in exploring alternative methods of justice. It wouldn't be quite the same film if Harry set up a literacy program instead of wreaking holy vengeance on the assholes who stabbed his friend, and we never root for the actual cops in any of these films. So with a film like Harry Brown I think we have to ask if the film is fair in its depiction of lower class youth and families in Britain? The answer is, predictably, no of course not, are you crazy?
It's therefore incredibly tempting to write Harry Brown off as another blood soaked revenge film that is meant to appeal to the worst in humanity. But I think there's something a little more interesting going on here and it ties into Brown's military service. Over the course of the film we learn that Brown's Marine service, in which he clearly learned how to kill very effectively, was done in Northern Ireland. Not in Vietnam or Normandy, but Northern Ireland. Brown references his service only twice; first he tells a story about a fellow soldier who was shot in the stomach and died a terrible death. And at the end of the film he says, "Those people over there [in Northern Ireland] were fighting for something, for these people [here in the estate] it's just entertainment." So not only does the film not even attempt to explore why things could go wrong when you stack hundreds of low-income families together into bleak, decades old, monolithic housing projects without much of a social structure around them, but it goes out of its way to call these people savages.
Choosing Northern Ireland as his scene of deployment was a very purposeful choice, it could have been anywhere, or even just some nameless war zone. But picking Northern Ireland places Harry into the role of imperialist. He becomes a representative of a crown, of an occupying force in a land that didn't want him there; he was on the wrong side of history in that battle and his admission that the Irish were "fighting for something" implies that he knows he was in the wrong. The imperial theme is emphasized in one of the scenes in the police station when two file boxes are prominently displayed to the camera; the boxes are labeled "Project Empire" and "Project Dorado." The police, who are repeatedly called ineffective by everyone from Noel to Harry, and whose actions in the estate are incredibly ineffective, become another invading force by the end of the film.
Harry Brown may be seeking righteous revenge for his friend and he is undoubtedly ridding the estate of seriously bad people, but he's also an embodiment of the colonial impulse and the violence that often attends it. He learned to kill in Northern Ireland, and now he's turning against his own countrymen. I'm not going to give away the details, but I think the ending, especially the last shot, also refuses to wrap the film up neatly with a bow. Was Harry a raging lunatic or a crusader for justice? I'm still not sure, and that ambiguity about his position, and the possibility that he was in the wrong and things aren't better, adds a welcome dimension to the film.
It's hard to imagine any other actor playing this role. Michael Caine is a convincing killer, yet he also doesn't turn into a man of steel either. This isn't the same Caine from Get Carter, this one gets tired when he tries to run, and this one sometimes misses when he shoots. Michael Caine's appeal as a tough guy has been partially rooted in his quiet, and the sense that many of his characters have a vulnerability about them, which makes them more endearing. Harry Brown allows him to use both of these tools, and it's a magnificent performance. Michael Caine has been nominated for at least one Oscar in each of the past five decades, and at this rate I'm not betting against a sixth.