Taking Out the (Euro)trash

Harry Brown (2009) is an ultraviolent British film that looks deeply into that nebulous cauldron of morality. The story of a widower and ex-serviceman bent on exacting a form of brutal revenge on behalf of his slain best friend, this worthy little film works on a number of levels.

Among the motifs it examines are generational differences (Harry and Leonard are suit-wearing standard bearers of the old guard), a devaluation of humanity, the responsibility of community stewardship and the redemptive powers of violence.

Early on, the audience sees an act of such utter depravity--a vicious, unprovoked attack on a young mother--that establishes an important contextual marker for the film: these kids simply don't care. They don't care about themselves and whether they will live or die, and they sure as hell don't care about others in their communities. The random nature of this early scene is perplexing, but it's not out of the ordinary. A few years ago, a man was shot on Halloween night here in Jacksonville for opening his door to hand out candy. That crime was never solved. Last year, a fifty-three-year-old pizza delivery driver was killed for less than twenty dollars. A man was recently shot to death at a gas station on the Arlington Expressway by a trio of youngsters; they took $3.00 from the man, and it's been widely reported that he would have given them the money if they had merely asked for it. There are literally hundreds of violent crimes committed by youthful offenders in Florida every year, and if there is any trend in their perpetuation it's that they are becoming increasingly brazen.

Harry Brown paints these kids in vivid detail. They are uneducated, manipulated by their elders and completely without respect for others. They peddle drugs, lay about having sex all day and intimidate any community members from using the roadways. Rioting is a form of entertainment (at one point Brown spits those very words, clearly distraught that the children of this generation don't actually believe in anything).

I see a film like this and it always leads me back to the kids. Why are they hanging out in the underpass? Why are they living a life where entertainment is attacking the elderly, where rape and sexual assault are looked at as cultural norms? Does no one care for them? I mean, are they not sons and daughters and sisters and brothers?

How did they arrive at this place in their lives? When you engage in that discussion, it ultimately drops you back here--at the problem of evil. That's a theological and philosophical quagmire (albeit an interesting topic to wrestle with) that looks at both the deductive and inductive proofs for the existence of God, as well as the nature of evil.

In films like this, and like The Brave One and other revenge fantasies (I'm still looking forward to the I Spit on Your Grave remake), the antagonists are almost always caricatures. They are drawn so sparsely that you almost wonder if these writers and directors do it on purpose, as though they want their actions to become the characters. Then, we can believe that the characters themselves are truly evil.

And that's another major question I have on the topic. Do the people who do these things, that commit murder and rape and intimidate old ladies and beat their children and domestic partners--are they always "on"? Or do they do the things the silent majority (the film's language) does, like send their mums birthday cards and stop to ponder the beauty of the evening stars?

Or, are they always just being "evil"? If so, what made them that way, their brain chemistry or their upbringing?

And, is Harry Brown "evil" for dispatching these thugs with bloody aplomb? The hard-fought turf war that Brown wins here is not like the freedom won by Clint Eastwood's character in Gran Torino. Here, the winners and losers aren't separated at all.

So as you can see by my ramblings here, this film raises more questions than it answers. That's a good thing, and it's a good movie. Daniel Barber's vision is dark and sterile, the South London projects gritty and eerily homogeneous. Caine is wonderful here--believable as a capable killer and also as a doting husband and loyal friend. The violence will turn a large portion of the audience off. The wounds here are audio friendly--lots of gurgling and spurting--and the deaths in the pub in the third act are, like much of the film, very upsetting.

But it's worth a watch, then a digestion, and then a rumination, and then a discussion.

I mean, why? Why do some people do these things?

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