Saturday, September 18, 2010


This movie is inevitably going to be compared to Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino, so let's make sure we understand the essential differences. Daniel Barber's film is about a man in the process -- the final stages, really -- of losing the world he knew; Eastwood's is about a man who's already lost his. In Barber's film, Michael Caine's title character is clearly traumatized by loss and sudden isolation, while Eastwood plays the great American isolato; he's not consciously bothered about being alone, while Caine's isolation provokes him to think he has nothing to lose if he does something foolhardy. Eastwood is more archetypically cantankerous, but Gran Torino is not the reactionary sort of film that Harry Brown is. Harry's vigilante spree is a last act of rearguard resistance to social change, and given what we see who wouldn't resist? Both films are about the menace of gangs to an extent, but while Eastwood is against gangs he isn't against youth. There's no such distinction in Barber's film. Eastwood's character proves capable of allying with the more promising kids in his neighborhood, but those kids have no counterparts in Harry Brown. It's probably significant that Eastwood is dealing with immigrants and homeowners, while Caine must cope with fellow tenants, most as white as he, in a bleak apartment project (or "estate"). Gran Torino ultimately reaffirms immigrants' potential to replenish American society and culture, in part through homeownership, while the Barber film traps Caine in a zone where no aspiration seems possible, and the youth are already lost. Gran Torino is optimistic despite the hero's death; he sacrifices himself with some assurance that the future is worth it. Harry Brown ends, like many vigilante movies, with the protagonist a lingering implicit threat to the next generation. You can call it a happy ending, but how optimistic or hopeful is it, really?

Gran Torino was a politically correct film, once unbelievable from Eastwood, by comparison with Harry Brown. The British film won't necessarily strike an American observer as politically incorrect, since race doesn't factor into Harry's conflict and we're invited to sympathize with a female police detective facing sexism in the ranks. What makes it so, depending on your own point of view, is its purely reactionary quality, something that more sympathetic viewers might call unflinching realism. I find it reactionary (a descriptive rather than moral judgment) because of its unmitigated indictment of English youth. There's no good kid in the estates for Harry to befriend or protect, no one of the teen generation or slightly older who might give audiences cause for hope. Barber's movie is dystopian; it's set in the present, but it may as well be the time of Mad Max. If the youth of Britain have any chance, Harry Brown suggests, it'll only be as long as old men like Harry put the fear of death into them.

I draw comparisons because Harry Brown and Gran Torino are essentially similar. They're star vehicles for enduring action icons who are allowed, while playing old, sick men, to kick punks' asses. Caine's movie arguably deals with the main character's age and illness more realistically than Eastwood's. Clint coughs up blood every so often, then goes about his business punching out punks, while Caine succumbs to emphysema in mid-chase and has to be hospitalized. Harry is no septuagenarian superman; he's not as fast as the punks, prevailing over them mainly because they're incompetent even at violence compared with a knowledgeable antagonist. There are hints that Harry was more of a specialist in brutality in his Marine days than Eastwood's character was during the Korean War, making Harry's spree arguably more plausible than Eastwood's occasional non-lethal antics. The tension between Harry's skills and his age helps keep Harry Brown interesting. "What's he capable of?" is a legitimate question throughout in more than one sense: what's Harry capable of physically and morally? The moral tension, unfortunately, is understressed. Barber and writer Gary Young have so persuasively portrayed the estate youth as monsters that there seems little point in questioning whether Harry hasn't become a monster himself.

I'm ambivalent about vigilante movies. They can be entertaining as hell or Harry Brown, but I don't know if I can accept an "only a movie" argument in defense of their implicit advocacy of people taking law into their own hands. Given the end results in Barber's film, who could be blamed for thinking the message to be, "Go and do likewise." When a vigilante character gets away with it all, however implausibly, it seems like the cheapest form of audience gratification. Vigilante films are fantasies, however, and I suppose audiences can be trusted to draw distinctions between what's allowed on screen and in society. When a vigilante film is a star vehicle like Harry Brown, that might discourage viewers from thinking that vigilantism is something they can do. Plenty of able-bodied people probably leave this film convinced that Michael Caine could kick their asses in real life, or at least kill them with little trouble. Someone fantasizing about emulating Harry Brown might be stopped short by the realization that he isn't Michael Caine. Still, however modest the vigilante fantasy actually is, it probably still isn't healthy for society, and speaking from my own aesthetic perspective, I prefer more pessimistic movies, or at least those where the vigilante might get the revenge he or she is looking for, but pays for it as well.

Above, Harry Brown watches crime from a safe distance. Below, technology reduces the distance across time and space between Harry and his friend's final moments.

By that standard, Harry Brown can't fully satisfy me, but I like a lot of the parts. Barber has an eye for dismal cityscapes and a taste for apocalypse in miniature. He's also effective in portraying Harry's accelerated isolation, and the collection of deleted scenes on the DVD show a sharp editorial instinct for doing more with less. Caine milks the title role for all its pathos and all its comic-book crowd-pleasing quality, and works that tension between prowess and infirmity very effectively. In Emily Mortimer's detective he has a regrettably inadequate antagonist. She plays the character convincingly but it just feels like the wrong character for this story. It needs a detective who'll challenge Harry more forcefully, but that may just be me desiring a more ambiguous movie again. The gang punks are barely differentiated little ogres, but I'll say for the young men playing them that they look and sound like they were just plucked from the estates. Harry Brown is an urban nightmare of which its protagonist is a part. The best way to look at it, if not necessarily the way the creators want, is to see Harry as a symptom, not a cure, or as still a victim despite his revenge.


Shaun Anderson [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Excellent review and I appreciated the comparison with 'Gran Torino'. I'm from the UK and the film has an hysterical quality in keeping with the 'tabloid headline' false morality. A more specific British comparison might be 'Eden Lake' which likewise depicts its teenage characters as feral and unable to break the cycle of abuse and abuses they find themselves within. I both like and dislike the emotional manipulation of vigilante films, but this one is, as you point out, unashamedly reactionary, and as a result offers no alternative perspective. I loved seeing Michael Caine kick ass though.

Sam Juliano said...

"Daniel Barber's film is about a man in the process -- the final stages, really -- of losing the world he knew; Eastwood's is about a man who's already lost his."

Indeed, Samuel, and this is a trenchant review and comparison with the Eastwood film. The major difference for me that sets these films apart is that there isn't a speck of humor in HARRY BROWN, while the macho humor is what propels Eastwood's film for it's first two-thirds. HARRY BROWN is a reasonably powerful indictment on lawlessness that resonates long after the conclusion. Caine delivers one of his very best performances too.

Samuel Wilson said...

Shaun and Sam: I'm still not sure whether Barber had an obligation to be more evenhanded in his presentation of the kids in the estates. There's room, I guess for a point of view that finds them capable of being tamed only by force and fear, and Harry Brown expresses that viewpoint with impressive power. If I broke down film ratings by form and content, I suppose that this film would score higher in the former category than the latter.