The “Catching Up With 2010” series was founded as a means of revisiting films that flew under my radar when they first came out, but that as a film critic – or merely a fan – I felt somehow obligated to watch before the end of the year. It was never intended to merely catalogue the worst movies of the year, but as has been repeatedly pointed out to me by my readers that is exactly what happened. As such I’ve decided to remedy this chance occurrence (well, mostly chance… I really didn’t expect much from Marmaduke, after all) by reviewing a film I recently caught up with and which has a very good chance of making my “Top Ten” list at the end of the year: Daniel Barber’s exceptional British revenge drama Harry Brown, starring Michael Caine.
Pete Townsend once wrote “I hope I die before I get old,” but it’s important to note that he was only 20 years old at the time. The song “My Generation” was very much on my mind as I watched Harry Brown, which like the song is British and discusses the difficult relationships between young whippersnappers and old farts. The obvious difference is that in Harry Brown our sympathies clearly rest with the codgers, but in defense of the analogy many of the young characters in the film do die, and long before they’ll qualify for even the earliest retirement. Michael Caine plays our hero, Harry Brown, whose very name implies a comfortable complacency: The movie may have other plans for him, but clearly this isn’t supposed to be a very interesting man.
But the movie begins with a strikingly interesting couple of scenes, seemingly filmed by the cellular phones of a gang of young thugs. They freebase, buzz harmless bystanders on their motorcycles and shoot those poor people in the head when they try to voice their disapproval. It’s a frenetic and digital prologue, clearly designed to create a contrast between the following scenes of Harry Brown as he goes about a boring but thoroughly cinematic morning in a series of static but carefully composed shots. It’s predictable dichotomy but an effective one nonetheless. Daniel Barber directs Harry Brown deliberately, but even though the motives for his cinematic decisions are rarely subtle they are always well-reasoned and used to tell a familiar story in a remarkable way.
Case In Point: Harry Brown finally decides he will need guns to protect himself and the streets of his neighborhood, but is forced to acquire said guns illegally. (It’s Britain, after all.) As he makes his way through a den of iniquity, from a thriving marijuana farm to a seedy back room with an overdosing young lass and homemade pornography on the television, the sound designers officially earn an Oscar (which they probably won’t receive, alas). Through the hum of the fluorescent lights and the decidedly un-erotic moans on the telly the audience is forced to acclimate to a wall of ugly sounds. We’re never comfortable, but despite the decidedly quieter soundscapes of the film that preceded this extended sequence we’re just starting to get used to it when the gun goes off. But gunfire isn’t taken for granted in Harry Brown. It’s a terrifying sound, louder than the usual action movie soundtracks, and it always has the effect of piercing something that was most certainly not designed to be pierced, even if it’s just the air. Violence is unnatural in Harry Brown. That is its power, and that is its significance.
Another Case In Point: At the start of the story Harry Brown is caring for his wife, who dies before the end of the first reel. Harry spent the bulk of his life with this woman, and still remembers in detail the night they met at and stayed up till the wee hours just dancing together. He grieves for his loss but this tragedy doesn’t drive him to action. It takes the murder of his best and perhaps only friend Leonard (David Bradley, who plays Argus Filch in the Harry Potter movies) by youthful street gangs to drive him over the edge. The loss of a beloved wife was a natural part of growing old. The murder of an old man whose only mistake was not taking habitual abuse from a group of no-good punks lightly… that’s something else altogether.
Michael Caine looks like he’s in good shape for a 77-year-old, but 77 years old he remains, so he never gets to knock down the door to a crackhouse with guns ablazing. Here that dichotomy comes back in again. Whereas the various street toughs Harry Brown eliminates are amoral arseholes with superior numbers and firepower, Harry Brown has something far more valuable: discipline. Whereas Harry’s prey will unload clip after clip into the well-chosen darkness in which he’s hiding, Harry is able to dispatch them with ease by carefully aiming his well-maintained weapon once, maybe twice if necessary. It doesn’t sound like complicated storytelling because it’s not, but it’s a hell of a lot more reasoned than the average film these days, of any genre. That the film is shot with a careful eye for detail, edited seamlessly and performed by actors with a clear understanding of both violence and compassion, the latter personified by the wonderful Emily Mortimer, who plays a homicide detective handicapped by her respect for human life, would have been enough.
In his excellent Save The Cat series, Blake Snyder pointed out the significance and power of an opening image that differs greatly from an image that concludes the film. Ridley Scott’s Alien, for example, opens with an image of seven people waking up and closes with only one person (plus cat, saved) going to sleep. Harry Brown also provides an excellent example: an old man afraid to use the subway at the start of the picture, an old man not afraid to use the subway at the end. That is to say that Harry Brown is a textbook example of great filmmaking, but never at the sacrifice of a great, involving and profoundly violent storytelling. It’s a simple, rousing but always intelligent examination of the brutal violence, as indeed all violence is, and all of its horrifying effects but wrapped up snugly in traditional action tropes that keep it entertaining throughout. You’d be forgiven for missing Harry Brown and theaters (no one can blame you for blinking), but you’d never forgive yourself for missing such a fantastic piece of cinema now that it’s out on home video.