HARRY BROWN (2010)
Suppose we are living in a post-Apocalyptic world—no Mad Max, just loss of faith and lack of hope. Suppose our world has ended as T. S. Eliot predicted, with a whimper. Daniel Barber, director of Harry Brown, insisted that the film is an inducement to “ask ourselves how we got to this point—the point where its easier for kids to make a living from crime and drugs than a nine-to-five job.” The New Yorker conceded his point but felt that the film did not really take up the question. I beg to differ with the reviewer, David Denby, who may be wishing for a “message” movie with an outside voice diagnosing the social conditions of London public housing and a moralizer describing the proper solutions. The world of “Harry Brown,” effectively played by Michael Caine, is an airtight one, impenetrable to the forces of law and order, abandoned by a fearful and selfish middle class. The only source of authority, from low level drug dealers to smug police commissioners, use the forsaken terrain of the Projects to their own advantage. “Harry” is a solid citizen who served his country as a Marine and came home from the war to live an ordinary life. Once his wife dies, he is left alone—he apparently has no other family—-except for his friend and neighbor, “Len,” portrayed by British character actor, David Bradley. The two chess players are “pensioners,” elderly men living on their retirement incomes in a vast slum of public housing. At the other end of the spectrum, are the youth of the neighborhood. These young men may be the lords of estate but, like “Harry,” they are also in a hopeless dead-end state, but, tragically, they are at the beginning of their lifetimes without an exit in sight. Both the old and young men are passing the time away, with only violence to relieve the boredom.
Harry Brown is a combination of Death Wish and all its sequels and of Dirty Harry and all its progeny. At the time of their making, the 1970s, Death Wish and the many Dirty Harry films, were criticized for being neo-fascistic in their vigilante fantasies of justifiable violence. In contrast to its early American counterparts, Harry Brown is very British in its slow build-up to “Harry’s” revenge for his friend’s death. Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood lived on different coasts: Bronson in the dark night of an ugly New York City and Eastwood in the scalding sunlight of a San Francisco terrified by a serial killer named “Zodiac.” Michael Caine lives in a place where the sun doesn’t shine, marooned in the city of London and isolated from any alternatives. He is old and not at all fit. All he has going for him is a dim memory of his service during the “Troubles” in Ireland. Despite his background as a Royal Marine, Harry is not a particularly efficient killer but he is a driven and passionate one. Unlike “Paul Kersey,” Harry does not take on the task of ridding his environment of the “undesirables.” Unlike the American “Dirty Harry,” our “Harry” is not a stone cold arm of the law who protects the public. For this “Harry” in old age, vengeance is narrow and specific, towards those who killed his friend. Clearly, there is no one to turn to: the police, symbolized by Emily Mortimer as a well-meaning DI who cannot make a difference, come to the slum only to inspire a riot over territory.
It is the dark tone of the movie, the night-tints of the scenes, and the singular lack of uplift that sets Harry Brown apart from its predecessors. Death Wish and the Dirty Harry films were symptomatic of the disillusionment and backlash against the Sixties, reflective of the very real economic and social crisis, and reactionary in their Wild West solution to social unrest. Like Harry Brown, these early vigilante films lashed out at those on the margins of society, pimps, drug runners, petty thieves, and prostitutes. A discourse on the morality of the Viet Nam War and the consequent failure of the Great Society would have been too boring and too complex. It is simply easier to blow away those who were deemed as unworthy of viable life. The revenge films of the Seventies were crudely moralistic—an eye for an eye—-slickly and professionally made, well acted and thus, credible and quite satisfying. “Kersey” and “Dirty” were excellent and ruthless assassins, acting in the name of a primal good. Regardless of one’s politics or social experience, identification with the exterminators was easy and exciting. Harry Brown is not satisfying, merely draining, which is the point. A happy ending is signaled, not by “Harry” moving on to a better home, but by the temporary whiteness of a newly painted public underpass, momentarily quiet after the riot.
So how have we reached this point in time when we, once again, feel the need for some kind of justice? Forty years later, we are at the same point—our dreams of prosperity and security have been vaporized once again. Once again those responsible for our current disaster are skating away unscathed, publishing their memoirs. So who do we shoot? How shall we get our revenge? I was struck at how old the audience in the theater was—-not young males, jonesing on vicarious excitement—-but elderly couples: Michael Caine’s audience, all grown up after Alfie. They have been “here” before and are reliving another “Dirty Harry” era. The audience I sat with was a university based crowd, affluent and intellectual, habitual attendees of an “art film.” This older group at the film has lived through the complacency of the Fifties, the changes of the Sixties, the selfishness of the Seventies, the greed of the Eighties, the ill-advised adventures of the Nineties, and the haplessness of the first decade of the Millennium. The decade that lies ahead promises to be like the Seventies, dark and disturbed, valueless and rudderless, with no one in charge. Like “Harry” we are caught on an estate ruled by the lawless, whether this crowd be called “Goldman Sachs” or the oil companies or the Terrorists. Outside the theater, beyond the secure university neighborhood, people are agitating against the “aliens” who are “invading” “our” space. At every economic downturn, we rage against the “outsider” and show them our dark side. Harry Brown suggests that we have learned nothing from our past and that rather than moving forward, we have merely been running in place, unwilling to do whatever it would take to face those who have been left behind, in the projects, the ghettos, the slums, and in the foreclosed homes. We are too tired and it is too dark to offer them solutions instead of displaced blame and rage.
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette
The Arts Blogger