Culture & Conversation

Bloody Elegant Justice

Daniel Barber’s full-length feature, Harry Brown, is a bloody tale starring Michael Caine as the titular pensioner vigilante who delivers his own brand of street justice in modern-day London. Winner of a slew of awards for his first short film, the celebrated director of TV commercials has debuted with a movie that’s a genre exercise in theory, though not in execution.

We’re immediately reminded of Caine’s previous turn as anti-hero Jack Carter in 1971’s Get Carter, or of the Death Wish series’ bloody revenge fantasies.

While those films wore their B-movie baggage on their sleeves, glorifying brutal stylized executions and advocating retribution without consequence, Harry Brown’s success hinges on Caine’s flawless performance, and on Barber’s thoughtful and measured direction.

A 76-year-old retired marine and recent widower, Brown is led to take violent action after the sudden murder of his last remaining friend at the hands of a street gang. While the film’s set-up is clearly informed by the revenge stories that inspired it, Caine lends a sense of gravity and of purpose to his character’s situation, his motivations and ultimately his actions. He allows Brown to transcend the typical blank canvas anti-hero stereotype.

Similarly, Barber’s direction allows the character to breathe and the events to unfold at a calculated pace. Scenes that need to build tension and discomfort do just that. One particular sequence, where Brown engages with a pair of unsavoury underworld folk in order to procure some firepower, is particularly long and unsettling, but the languid pacing truly benefits the overall effect.

Brilliantly shot by Martin Ruhe, who photographed the gorgeous Ian Curtis biopic Control, the camera work is stately, naturalistic and beautifully composed.

In the early exposition scenes, the camera lingers on Brown’s hands as he engages in his daily activities: a cup of coffee in the morning, a game of chess, an afternoon pint at the pub. At once a showcase of the everyday, the familiar, these shots foreshadow what our hero’s hands will ultimately be capable of doing.

While a success in terms of cinematic execution, the film is not without its faults. Thematically, it cannot escape its pedigree as a classic revenge tale, and as such certain plot points feel forced and all too obvious.

And while the violence is never stylized and is always delivered with a great deal of weight, the movie spends little time examining the cause of youth-related gang violence. A police interrogation scene early on does manage to approach the subject and give it some context, but ultimately the troubled kids who murdered Brown’s friend are never allowed to be more than violent caricatures.

While Barber might not have succeeded at delivering the piece of socially-conscious cinema he set out to make, Harry Brown remains a smart, elegant and masterfully executed revenge story. As such, it is definitely recommended viewing.

Harry Brown is playing at the AMC Forum.

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