I’ll be plain: movies like this one bother me because they’re rigged games. I know, of course, that all movies (and all other kinds of art) are rigged games, if only because they’re created by someone to express a point of view. Nonetheless, the word “rigged” bubbled up in my mind time and time again as I watched Harry Brown unfold. There may be a more graceful way to tell a story like this; I’m skeptical, but I suppose it’s possible. But this is an ungainly enterprise, and quite possibly pointless.
The titular Brown (played by Michael Caine in sad-eyed mode) is a retiree living in a South London estate that’s basically a slum. His wife has long since passed, his daughter died years ago, and he has only one friend left in all the world. And that friend is having a problem: the local hoodlums and drug dealers are harassing him, and Harry’s friend has had enough. He shows Harry a bayonet and says: no more.
You can guess what happens to him. You can also guess that the police, personified here by Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer), are by turns naïve and ineffectual, because social services of any kind cannot be functional for a plot like this one to work. So, summoning up his courage and steel from his Army days (because of course Harry Brown is a heavily-decorated ex-badass), he takes up knife and pistol and decides to clean out his neighborhood himself.
It’s only Caine’s gravity (and the movie’s faux-serious tone) that stops Harry Brown from feeling like a complete throwback. There’s a certain prudishness in its opening scenes that’s required for a movie like this to exist decades after its heyday; we must see that Brown is a reluctant protagonist living in a grim and colorless world, that he does not welcome violence or get much joy from it, and we must see that his faith in the system is misplaced.
It’s a long, elaborate disclaimer of a ritual, meant to give the character (and the audience) permission to enjoy the eventual mass murder of sociopathic caricatures without guilt or question. Worse, with its pretentions to realism, it panders to the worst cynicisms present civilized man: that everyone not in your circle is stupid, evil, or both.
I may be accused of prudishness myself. I’ve already been asked if I couldn’t handle the violence in the movie, which is humorous, given the contents of my DVD collection. “This is how things really are” is a frequent refrain in the conversations on the movie’s IMDB page, as if a combination of ignorant cynicism and 90 minutes spent in a movie theater constitutes a hard-won knowledge of “how things really are.” Make no pretensions: Harry Brown is a fantasy for sheltered urbanites to revel in the realization of their deepest prejudices.
I spent some time sorting out what about the movie bothered me so much. I am, after all, a guy who owns several hundred dollars’ worth of Garth Ennis Punisher comics and trades. In the comic, the Punisher is a remorseless killer who has taken revenge for the murder of his family well past reason, well past mass murder, into something else entirely. So why did those stories appeal to me while Harry Brown actively pissed me off?
I think I have it nailed. Ennis has spent a lot of time treading in the revenge genre, and his work draws its depth by examining the soul of the man out for revenge. That’s why his Punisher work hit so many key points in Frank Castle’s life: the seeds of violence, the catalyst, the first kills, the proper revenge itself, and his eventual end. His story was as much about the death of a soul as it was about wiping out scumbags. Frank Castle willingly sank himself into a Hell of his choosing, and Ennis’s gift was recognizing that that—not the body count—was the real story.
Harry Brown is not interested in such things. It is exactly what it appears to be about: a man shooting and stabbing his way to a better world. Helpfully, Harry Brown ends on the words “the silent majority,” in case we didn’t pick up on its subtle nuances elsewhere in the film. Speaking as a member of the silent majority, my only response is a hearty “fuck you.”