by Erin Thursby
Harry Brown is a modern Western set in an English city. It’s a vengeance flick, truly, but like those Westerns of yore, all the brutality from the hero just feels right. Harry Brown, excellently played by Michael Caine, loses his best friend to violent criminals. Brown is 70-something pensioner, living in a neighborhood so horrific that, after viewing the film, Satan is remodeling Hell to include graffitied tunnels and Brit thugs in hoodies.
The character of Harry Brown is established in ordinary moments: his butter knife scraping against toast, his daily walk to play chess with a friend, a pull on his inhaler and visiting his wife in the hospital.
But soon the ordinary is shattered. His wife succumbs to her illness and his only friend dies soon afterward. It’s his friend’s brutal murder and Brown’s utter isolation that drives him to seek vengeance. After all, the feckless police can’t seem to anything effective without causing a full-scale riot.
The only morally ambiguous ground belongs to the police in this tale. They’re bound by the law, unable to do what they need to. We find a sympathetic figure in Detective Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer), who comes to inform Harry of his friend’s violent death. She’s not jaded the way the rest of the department is and she seems to genuinely care about Harry’s loss.
Harry finds his first weapon in a box of memories. Pictures of his now-dead daughter, ticket stubs, photographs and finally, on the bottom— a knife from his military days. It’s apt, because love for his wife and his life had covered over his violent past. He turned his back on all that once he found her.
At this point Harry Brown changes from merely being interesting to watch into a total badass who’s interesting to watch. Sure he has emphysema and you can out run him, but he will totally put a cap in your punk-ass– if you deserve it.
It’s clear who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. There’s no equivocation (except momentarily, for the sake of the ending twist). Because of that, the movie is a bit cathartic. But it’s also a bit simplistic. The gangsters are hideous caricatures of drug-addled chaotic evil. There’s never any questions about how the neighborhood got so terrible– that’s just the way it is. The good people afraid of the bad people, with no power to do anything about it. I know that these questions don’t come to the fore because the writers must drive home: Harry good. Thugs evil.
It’s easy to kill them because the movie establishes that they are less than human as a group. It’s not necessarily a bad thing as far as the movie goes, because the clear delineation between the good guys and the bad guys is what makes it fun. It’s not as unbelievable as it seems. There are kids who tape beatings on their iPhones, who are utterly soulless and conscience-free. But if you’ve never lived or worked or gone to school in a ‘hood like that, if you’ve never been picked completely at random for a beating as you crossed a street, you probably will find it hard to swallow. But yes, these people do exist. And no, they don’t need a real reason other than their own entertainment.
I found myself wondering how differently this movie would play in England. Guns figure strongly into the movie, and the American perception of gun violence is different from the Brit point of view. The director Daniel Barber, though he works in L.A., is a citizen of the UK, and that’s where the movie is set.
All in all, Harry Brown is a departure from the usual vengeance flick because the hero is unconventional, but it still sticks to the black-and-white world view that most films like this must have in order to be satisfying.
HARRY BROWN movie review
by Erin Thursby