Throughout Harry Brown I kept waiting for the moment when the movie would turn, when it would say that the violent vigilantism practiced by Michael Caine’s had-it-up-to-here old codger was wrong. When it would point a finger at us in the audience and admonish us for cheering on Caine as he brutally blew away low income, disadvantaged youth.
That moment never came.
And so Harry Brown turns into a terrific, violent revenge thriller that is also incredibly politically troubling, a movie that doesn’t just excuse fascism, it more or less cries out for fascism. By the end of the film the titular character has proven to everyone that nothing will clean up a council estate like some hot lead between the eyes of 17 year olds. The movie feels like it came from the mind of Travis Bickle, but unlike Scorsese’s fucked up antihero, Brown himself is a righteous man… who just happens to have been pushed too far.
That’s pretty standard business for a movie like this. Paul Kersey wasn’t even the first guy to get pushed too far, and Harry Brown certainly won’t be the last, but what sets Harry Brown apart from other films in its genre is how ferociously political it is. Caine’s Brown is an ex-Royal Marine who served in Northern Ireland during The Troubles; when someone reminds him that his neighborhood isn’t Ulster, he says (and I paraphrase), “I know. Those people were fighting for a cause. For these people it’s just entertainment.” The fact that this is said during a massive riot featuring skirmishes between the poor, underprivileged youth of the neighborhood and helmeted police (a riot that was really triggered by an escalation of violence that Brown himself caused) makes the movie’s politics very clear: these people are animals, without honor or dignity. Brown – and the movie – can’t understand that there’s a system that failed these kids, and that maybe it isn’t entertainment that’s happening in those streets but the venting of an inarticulate rage at having been left behind and cast off. That maybe those street toughs gather in the tunnel and exercise power over others through violence because they have nowhere else to go and no other way to find self worth. Maybe – just maybe! – the criminals aren’t simply worthless scum who should be exterminated.
Usually I don’t care about the politics of a revenge film like this – the basic set up needs really bad bad guys, so that you can get behind the hero blowing them away in cold blood. If we felt divided – “He’s not a bad kid, he’s just as much a victim of the streets as you are!” – there would be no entertainment. And while it would be interesting to make a revenge film that actually had a nuanced view of criminals, nobody has a responsibility to make that film if they don’t want to. But screenwriter Gary Young and director Daniel Barber make these politics so front and center, and never ever cast any doubt on the moral rectitude of their hero, that it seems impossible to even watch the film without dealing with the politics.
Politics aside, Harry Brown is a damn well made revenge film. Caine is brilliant as an old man who likes to have a pint at the pub, play chess with an old friend and visit his fading wife in the hospital. Things go south quickly, though, as he discovers the pub is a drug dealers den, he misses his wife’s final moments because thugs have taken over a pedestrian subway, making him late to the hospital, and finally his old pal gets viciously killed by the thugs. And to make it all worse the police seem soft and ineffectual, especially the lead investigator Emily Mortimer, who suspects that Brown’s pal brought his own death upon himself by attacking the thugs (she’s right). Angered and sickened by what has become of his home, Harry Brown takes matters into his own hands.
What follows is a geriatric swath of carnage and torture. Caine us d to be a legitimate bad ass action star in his heyday, and he taps into that for Brown. Cool and collected, Harry Brown is the kind of guy who, after his life is saved by a drug dealer’s gun jamming, admonishes the corpse-to-be about his weapon care regime. He’s the unstoppable tough guy, the sort of dude who just walks forward into a hail of bullets with his gun held at arm’s length… but he’s that guy in his goldenest of years. Rage and hate will take an old feller pretty far, it turns out, but the movie’s drama hinges on the question of whether it will be far enough. It also hinges on the question of whether he’ll be found out; the film seems almost contemptuous of the idea that the police would try to catch a good samaritan working hard at cleaning up the streets through gunplay.
Barber makes his feature debut with Harry Brown, but his visual style and sense of pacing mark him as someone who has been in the business for a while. He shoots the action with a brutal intensity, eliciting lots of loud responses from the audience; the only debit against him is that he settles for CGI blood in a movie that otherwise keeps a down to earth, 1970s vibe going. The digital blood isn’t bad but it feels weirdly out of place, like an iPhone in a period piece.
It’s all the Michael Caine show, though. His performance will transport you back to the original Get Carter, and he deftly maneuvers between being a destroyed old man and a furious killing machine, sometimes within the same moment. The script gives Harry Brown the bare minimum humanity, much of it set up in a heavy handed manner in the opening, but it’s Caine who infuses the guy with a reality and a likability, which is crucial as the movie slides into a paean to exterminating the lower classes.
The classes are really what it’s all about. Harry Brown was a working class man, and he’s seen the modern world push him away and down and into the lower classes. Fifty years ago he was a respectable man in a respectable neighborhood, but today he’s a guy living in a dump that’s run by a group of drug-crazed assholes (they almost feel like a grounded version of the parkour gang from Punisher War Zone); the middle class disappeared out from under his feet. That’s the rage at the center of the movie, the rage of an endangered middle class confronted with chavs and other noxious youth who are suddenly their equals. I was thinking that Harry Brown was Thatcher-era nostalgia, but maybe it’s really the first post-recession revenge film.
A tightly wound, well-made revenge thriller with great action and some terrific performances, Harry Brown
is also a deeply troubling ode to harsh, totalitarian responses to crime. It’s interesting to watch a film that’s so engaging, so well made and so satisfying only to be mostly repulsed by its politics and meaning. Now I finally know how the Tea Baggers feel when they watch movies espousing tolerance, peace or reason.
8 out of 10