You would think, after Johnny Depp’s Oscar nomination and his graduation from cult favorite to bona fide movie star who can actually open a movie, that some enterprising video distributor would dust off one of his best and least-seen films for American consumption. Aaaand you would be wrong.
As of this writing in May 2006, Depp’s directorial debut, The Brave — which premiered at Cannes nine years ago, and thereafter played in France, where they’re more tolerant of movies like this — still hasn’t gotten an American release, even on video. It’s been shown in a few countries, and it’s readily available online as either a bootleg tape (which I don’t recommend) or an Asian all-region DVD (not the best transfer in the world, but a damn sight better than the bootleg, and at least it’s letterboxed). Is the movie that bad — so bad no American distributor wanted it, even with the presence of Depp and Marlon Brando (in a two-scene “special appearance”)? Not hardly. It has flaws — it has at least one major one — but overall this is an honorable and provocative debut.
Depp is Raphael, a rock-bottom-poor Native American living in a (literal) dump with his wife Rita (Elpidia Carrillo), son (Cody Lightning), and daughter (Nicole Mancera). There are no jobs anywhere around, especially not for those of Raphael’s race and criminal past. So he takes a bus into town and meets with a shadowy, wheelchair-bound man named McCarthy (Brando). Though the script doesn’t make it nearly as explicit as Gregory McDonald’s source novel does, McCarthy makes snuff films; Raphael is there to star in one — submitting himself to be tortured to death for the camera — and his family will get $50,000, which Raphael hopes is enough to get Rita and the kids out of the soon-to-be-bulldozed scavengers’ community.
Like McDonald, Depp focuses on Raphael’s last days. Given a sizable cash advance, Raphael splurges on gifts and toys for his family, going so far as to build a makeshift amusement park for the kids. Rita suspects Raphael of falling back into crime; he’s too aware of his past to get too mad at her for assuming the worst. Also skeptical of Raphael’s new fortune — he claims to have found a job at “a warehouse in town” — are the visiting Father Stratton (Clarence Williams III), who knows what will happen to Raphael’s family if he gets sent to jail again, and the scuzzy Luis (Luis Guzmán), Raphael’s former partner in crime, who thinks Raphael has pulled off a big score and wants in on it. For good measure, Raphael is hounded by McCarthy’s callous, psychotic toady Larry (Marshall Bell), who wants to make sure Raphael doesn’t back out of the deal.
These are all distractions, though; the core of the story is how Raphael conducts himself in his final days with his family. Most of the power of the film derives from what we know and what everyone but Raphael doesn’t know — that whatever joy we see him bringing to his loved ones won’t last. Raphael springs for a huge fiesta for everyone in the community, and it’s about the most depressing and forlorn celebration you could ever hope to witness, given the subtext of impending doom. About the only comic relief is good old Luis Guzmán, whose vicious character we’re never happy to see, even though we’re always glad of Guzmán’s company.
Depp does a smooth and unflashy job as director, taking a page or two from his Dead Man director Jim Jarmusch. He takes his time; he fills the screen with underused and quirky character actors (it’s always cool to see Pepe Serna, forever remembered as the ill-fated chainsaw victim in Scarface); he even recruits Iggy Pop to put together a moody score, just like Jarmusch did with Neil Young. Depp even scooped Jarmusch by using actress Tricia Vessey (who went on to play the mobster’s daughter in Ghost Dog and here plays one of Luis’ drug-addled chippies) before Jarmusch did. Though the pace is slow and sometimes awkward or poky, I think Depp’s debut is worthy of comparison with that of Sean Penn (who would’ve been right at home with this despairing material).
Readers of McDonald’s trim, addictive book will regret a couple of key instances of soft-pedaling on the part of the screenwriters. In the book, McCarthy is a swine who enjoys regaling Raphael with sickeningly precise details of what will be done to him for the snuff film (McDonald actually took the rare step of warning the reader about this passage in a disclaimer at the front of the book). In the movie, Brando takes the opportunity to indulge in an Apocalypse Now-like monologue about how the noblest thing a man can do is to face painful death courageously and, by so doing, teach others how to accept death. Perhaps Depp didn’t want to set up false expectations about what the audience would see — for we see nothing of Raphael’s fate — or maybe Brando wanted to say something more spiritual (it sounds improvised, and not in a good way). Either way, if you’re not paying absolute attention you might even miss the detail that they’re buying Raphael for a snuff film, not just torture-for-hire.
For whatever reason — maybe he just didn’t have the heart to do it — Depp also throws away the horrific irony of McDonald’s ending: Raphael, who is illiterate, has signed a contract with McCarthy that he doesn’t realize is just gibberish. So not only will he be tortured to death, his family will get nothing. The movie simply ends with Raphael taking the silent final journey up to the torture chamber; we see no fake contract, though we may have doubts anyway about Rita seeing any of the money.
Still, Depp has made a moving and compassionate debut, one that neither has nor offers any illusions about the prospects of Native Americans in the land taken away from them (I’ll bet that’s one reason Brando agreed to appear here). The movie is short on political speeches; it just shows us the squalid fact of life for these people, as McDonald did, and lets us ponder the horror of an existence in which a man can become convinced that the only way to provide for his family is to let himself be butchered. Maybe that more than anything else — its vision of America as a country that drove its original population into death, disease, drunkenness and despair — explains why you haven’t seen an American release for The Brave and aren’t likely to any time soon.