My favorite time of the year. Football season has begun, baseball playoffs have begun, and, even better, the Red Sox are in the postseason! BUT, even better than all of that, it’s fall and that means the studios have started to roll out their Oscar contenders. The dog days of summer sequels and kids’ fare are over (The Game Plan not withstanding) and the flicks with serious subjects and meaty performances await….three months of pure cinematic bliss. Pinch me.
Oscar season means two things: big talent and serious themes. Past Oscar nominees and winners start showing up in front of and behind the camera, and films with serious themes become the cinema staple. Comedies, for some reason, still have the unfortunate stamp of disapproval from the Academy, so these next three months will be chock-full of heavyweight topics and downer plot twists. Nothing like a little depressing movie-going to lighten the holiday mood.
The first two so-called Oscar contenders of ’07 have both of these traits. 3:10 to Yuma stars two-time Oscar winner Russell Crowe and The Brave One stars two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster and is directed by an Oscar-nominated director (and Oscar-winning screenwriter) Neil Jordan. They are both serious films, but would seem to be completely different. 3:10 to Yuma is a Western, while The Brave One is a modern tale set in New York City. However, each film follows a character seeking personal redemption of some kind, a morality tale, if you will. Both films feature a character facing a moral dilemma, each one standing at a crossroads, making a choice which path to choose. What makes these films so crucially different is in how each film delivers this theme, how each character is drawn, and how their choice is played out.
It comes down to the essential question of what makes a good morality tale. What, at the heart of it, makes a human, who is standing at a crossroads, stop and ponder a choice. If that choice is between good and evil, whether that choice is temptation or something that could cause harm yet also result in pleasure or reward (or a sense of justice or revenge)…what are the choices we make? We all know such choices are rarely, if ever, black and white. These choices are never easy and the two “sides” are never clearly marked for us. That is, seemingly, why the choice is difficult and so dramatic.
In 3:10 to Yuma, Christian Bale plays a down-and-out farmer who has the chance to earn a good deal of money to pay off his debts and redeem himself in the eyes of his family, especially his son, if he escorts a wanted outlaw, played by Crowe, to a train (the 3:10 to Yuma). The problem is that Crowe’s gang is in the way and has promised a reward to any civilian who kills anyone who tries to get Crowe’s character onto the train, which essentially turns the assignment into a suicide mission. Bale’s character has a choice, to walk away, and let a killer walk free (and lose the prize), or to follow through, face the possible risk of death, but also face the potential redemption and reward if he succeeds. Thrown into the mix is the fact that Bale’s character is not drawn as purely sympathetic and Crowe’s character is not wholly evil. Grays. The world is not black and white. 3:10 to Yuma is complex, well-drawn, involving, compelling, stirring, moving, and, at its heart, uneasy. Just like life. There are no easy answers.
The Brave One, on the other hand, offers quite the opposite theory to life and its complexities. It posits the theory that life and the world is painted in black and white, where good is purely good and bad is unredeemably bad. Jodie Foster plays a talk radio host whose fiancé is killed by a gang of punks in Central Park when they are walking their dog and they both get attacked. She escapes death and just gets a terrible beating, but when she emerges from the hospital, her life is empty, and her spirit is dead. She has somehow decided she “won’t survive the next 30 days” without a gun, so she gets one and begins a vigilante killing spree….but ONLY kills bad guys. This is where we, as audience members, feel a strange sensation where we should feel good about what she’s doing. The way these guys that she kills are portrayed, ANYONE would stand in a theatre and cheer their being wiped off the face of the earth. And, on the other side, we have petite Jodie Foster, who has just been beaten within an inch of her life….shaking and quivering, a white woman who, before this, has never hurt a fly…has a conscience and would ONLY hurt those who are really BAD. And look what she’s been through, after all. So all of this makes it ok. Right?
There’s no denying films are the master manipulators. But come ON. Yes, we do like to go see our wildest dreams and fantasies acted out on the big screen….superheroes, superspies, romantic superstuds. And sure, this film may serve to act out our deepest desires…which of us hasn’t wished to act out against the cruelties that lie in the urban jungle, if only the law and our own fears weren’t holding us back? But this film is just too neat and too clean…it just doesn’t sit right, at the end of the day. It pretends to be one thing but ends up being another. It presumes to have a conscience, yet loses its conscience little by little throughout the movie, and, by the end, all conscience is totally gone.
The worst part, however, is that the good and bad is painted as purely good and purely bad. What makes 3:10 to Yuma so compelling are the varying shades of gray. What makes The Brave One so unbelievably un-compelling is its glaring black-and-whiteness. The “bad guys” are such cartoons, it’s laughable. It’s as if I was expecting a neon sign to flash “CHEER” every time she would blow one of them away, that’s how the audience was supposed to feel. And she, being the angel of justice, doing this service to humanity, while soothing and somehow healing her own wounds, is just so pure and good, we almost want to stand up and root her on with every shot she takes. When I finally stepped back and found myself being sucked in, I was appalled at how well it had actually worked.
Yes, the question of the moral right and wrong of vigilante justice is a valid one and one that should be debated. Does The Brave One continue the debate? Depends if you believe the world is painted in black and white or not.
As for the films and their potentials to be hanging around the Oscar debates come December, I believe Russell Crowe’s performance in 3:10 to Yuma is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from him. But, unfortunately, it will be forgotten come Oscar time because it’s too subtle. Christian Bale delivers a stunning performance, layered and complex, but I doubt the Oscar voters will remember him. As for Jodie Foster, she always is in the Oscar discussion and her performance is up to her usual standards, but do I believe this is an Oscar-worthy turn? No. But I have been wrong before. It’s never black-and-white.
The season’s just beginning……get out to the movies!