Harry Brown (2009, dir. Daniel Barber)
Starring Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Charlie Creed-Miles, David Bradley, Ben Drew, Jack O’Connell
In the States we call government housing The Projects, in the UK they have the Estates. This is setting of this bleak and tragic story of a man who is alone. The film doesn’t flinch from showing shocking acts of brutality and doesn’t raise up one figure as a champion over another. Harry does what he does, but why? The motives for the killing spree remain vague when you begin to examine things closely. Is it in retribution for his friend? Or is their something much darker going on?
Harry Brown, is ex-marine and pensioner living in the Estates. His wife is living in the hospital stuck in a catatonic state. He has one friend in the world, Leonard, whom he meets at the corner pub for a pint everyday. Leonard is fed up with the way drugs are sold openly and people like himself are harassed by the hoodlums that roam the estates. One morning, Harry wakes up to learn Leonard was found stabbed to death in a pedestrian tunnel. This seems to be the final straw for Harry and he embarks on a crusade to avenge his friend, killing young men where ever he goes.
The film eventually goes down a fairly predictable road with Harry’s action parallel by a police investigation about them. What is more interesting is all the subtext brought to the film, possibly not intentionally. There is a lot of work put into making the world Harry inhabits grimey and flithy and despicable. So we are naturally appalled by the various denizens he encounters. As an audience we are clearly set up to cheer for Harry and boo all those nasty villains (see Gran Torino). However, there is a moment near the end of the film where Harry asks a character to kill him. This immediately caused me to re-evaluate what had gone before. Here’s a man whose wife is gone and has just lost his best friend. He lashes out, presumably because he wants but he then wants to simply die at the end. His entire crusade was a nihilistic one. Harry lost all he loves and now he wants to explode, hitting what ever he can in his path.
If it wasn’t for Michael Caine this would have been a forgettable film. There is something about just his subtle looks that elevates the film. In one scene he sits across from a drug dealer whose girlfriend is overdosing on heroin. The slight glances and looks he makes around the room feed the audience tons of information. While Clint Eastwood seemed one note through Gran Torino, Caine delivers a multi-layered performance. Emily Mortimer is also wonderful as the detective in charge of Caine’s case. By the end, she’s the only virtuous character in the film. She has been devoted to her job and wants to solve the murders. However, we can see the world crumble around her.
Harry Brown definitely wants to be a lofty film, but its very much a continuation of the Death Wish premise. I admit there is some greater emotional depth here. The disappointment for me came from how undeveloped characters are. There is no motive for anyone save Harry and it left me feeling like the picture was very hollow.