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THE CASE FOR REVENGE

Times Staff Writer

Jodie FOSTER is perfectly aware that in reality women don’t kill strangers. “They kill their husbands and their children and themselves,” said the 44-year-old actress matter-of-factly. “That’s how women handle rage and abuse. Men are able to push outwards and are able to say, ‘I’m hurt so there must be something wrong with you.’

“Let’s say there is one that is,” she continued. A woman who does expel her anger outwards, that is. And let’s say she’s played by the two-time Oscar winner. “What is she like?” asked Foster. “What if she’s someone who says, ‘I’m not going to kill my children. I’m not going to kill myself. I’m going to kill that . . .’?”

In the film “The Brave One,” opening in mid-September from Warner Bros., audiences will see Foster’s rendition of this kind of a woman, an NPR-type radio host who is thrashed by malicious gangbangers in the first 10 minutes of the movie, then left in a bloody heap to watch them pummel her fiancé to a pulp. Afterward, her character transforms into a cerebral vigilante, methodically mowing down an array of wife-beaters, muggers, hoodlums and psychopaths. It’s a replay of 1974’s “Death Wish,” with Foster as a pint-sized Charles Bronson in a hoodie and leather jacket. Or a reworking of “Taxi Driver” where the girl who so memorably played the child prostitute in short shorts and a floppy hat has grown up and turned into Travis Bickle, her own addled savior.

Like the original “Death Wish,” which sparked controversy for theoretically sanctifying antisocial behavior, “The Brave One” (written by Roderick Taylor, Bruce Taylor and Cynthia Mort) seems destined to divide audiences, between those who are titillated by Foster’s descent into a cold-fingered executioner, riveted by her startlingly physical performance -- Foster practically invades the film with her tiny, sinewy form and low, modulated tones -- and others who will find it an exploitation movie tricked out like an art film, a morally repugnant exercise in which vengeance is celebrated. And don’t be surprised if the controversy breaks down along gender lines between women who groove to Foster’s brainy and bloodthirsty rebellion and men who find it all man-hating.

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Foster, the Yale grad, perhaps one of the best talkers in all of showbiz, insisted she’s not advocating simple-minded revenge. She certainly would prefer that audiences leave with a higher-minded message about the cost of violence, about the fear that has lurked in the hearts of Americans ever since Sept. 11. “There’s something incredibly true about the rage and fear that we don’t lay claim to, but once you experience it, you know it’s been there all along and everybody else walking down the street is lying to themselves,” she said recently over a cup of coffee.

What Foster said is provocative and mouthy, and it was at odds with her off-screen persona, all soft and fluffy, decked out in hassle-free practical mom mode. Perhaps there’s no movie star who does regular girl better than Foster, who’s been famous since she was 3, and shatteringly withstood the real dark side of fame -- John Hinckley Jr.'s obsession with her. Normalness is her invisibility cloak, though her mind, as it unveils itself, is anything but ordinary, and her startlingly blue eyes, with their ability to summon acute pain, hint at the turmoil inside.

Undeniably, Foster’s star power and her standing in the industry elevate “The Brave One,” turning it into a movie that can appeal to both the lowbrow and the high-. It transforms a woman-in-jeopardy scenario into a twisted woman-empowerment tale. Yet her film is not the only one that touches on revenge this season. Indeed, in “Reservation Road,” coming from director Terry George in October, a nerdy college professor (Joaquin Phoenix) is consumed with thoughts of revenge toward the man (Mark Ruffalo) who inadvertently killed his son in a hit-and-run accident. And then there’s James Wan’s “Death Sentence,” about a mild-mannered ad executive (Kevin Bacon) who turns into a vigilante after his son is murdered.

Responding to terror

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The ghost of 9/11 -- and the sense of powerlessness it wrought in the culture -- hovers over these movies.

“However people may object to this film, it reflects an awful lot of stuff in the world. Terror. I think people are living in a state of terror and they don’t know how to respond to what is affecting their lives at the moment,” said “The Brave One’s” director, Neil Jordan, who also made the British gangster film “Mona Lisa” and “The Crying Game,” with its IRA terrorists kidnapping a British soldier. “Whether they’re right-wing or left-wing, liberal or conservative, or an ex-Trotskyite like I am, there’s a deep sense of unease, not just in the United States but in Britain as well. When a doctor tries to set himself on fire in a Glasgow airport. . . .” He trailed off.

Given the amorphous but prevalent nature of the threat, he added, films that “try to adopt the kind of political critique which was occurring in the ‘70s -- they don’t really work.” According to Jordan, “The Brave One” harks back to an older genre of Dirty Harry revenge dramas, a form he labeled “brutal, nihilistic, American.”

George’s movie takes a different tack, and examines the cycle of revenge in the theoretically safe haven of the Connecticut suburbs. His film focuses on Phoenix’s character’s unquenched need for revenge, the idea that his manhood has somehow been slaughtered given his inability to protect his son, with equal weight given to the dilemma experienced by Ruffalo’s character, a decent man caught in an emotional and moral vise of his own making. “Post-9/11, there’s the cult of revenge,” said George, who made “Hotel Rwanda.” “We have to exact revenge on the other side without investigating the motives or who the other side is. That was important to me. Joaquin’s character completely demonizes the perpetrator to a point when he actually meets him, he doesn’t recognize him.”

“Reservation Road” operates in some recognizable moral universe. The parameters and politics of “The Brave One” are less easily distilled -- not black-and-white as in most big Hollywood movies. “It wouldn’t even be a quarter as polarizing if it was opening on three screens with some German actress,” Foster said bluntly. “The fact that it’s me and it’s opening on 3,000 screens is what makes people uncomfortable liking it. It’s a ‘70s movie and everyone is going to see it including the dumb ass who lives down the street who tortures pets.”

She giggled with wicked glee, having just realized where her mouth got her: “Oh, that’s a bad quote.” But she wasn’t derailed from the point she was trying to make.

“That’s what the fear is. The fear is that we have a sophisticated movie that unsophisticated people are going to see, and how are they going to react? We had the same thing on ‘Taxi Driver,’ on ‘Silence of the Lambs,’ on ‘The Accused.’ That’s a very similar situation. What if in the movie theater, someone claps and cheers during the rape scene? My feeling is, ‘Yeah, I’m glad that I’m not there.’ But I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world that we recognize something in ourselves that’s horrifyingly true.”

Jodie Foster can certainly talk. She can hold forth like a college professor on any theme related to the movie, the depiction of violence, existential terror, and the fact that women in movies who tote guns are usually glamorous cartoon figures in jiggly pants and heels. Our culture, she said, is uncomfortable with women who use power aggressively. Yet Foster, when asked how and why she transformed from the victim in “Taxi Driver” to the disassociated murderess of “The Brave One,” paused . . . and then laughed a little too hard.

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“I don’t know,” she said as if busted by the principal.

A solitary figure

UNDENIABLY, the issue of women and violence runs like a ragged stream through her work -- marking almost every one of the movies that have made her a great star, from “The Accused” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” which won her Oscars, to more recent popcorn fare like “Panic Room” and “Flightplan.” Unlike Meryl Streep, Foster is no chameleon, but an essence charged and recharged through various movies, like a repeating motif of music. The appealing nub of her remains -- vulnerable, smart, someone who fights victimization both internally and externally.

And she is almost always alone.

Aside from Clint Eastwood, Foster might be the most solitary figure in American cinema. The reward for a cinematic history of brutality, of wrestling with evildoers, is not catharsis but loneliness.

“I do play this solitary thing. I do that a lot. I’m drawn to it,” she mused. “Sometimes I find myself killing characters off so that I can really understand this solitary journey in film.”

Her burrowing into solitude is a reflection of Foster’s own creative process.

“It’s hard to drag me to make a movie,” Foster explained. She has two young sons, 5 and 9, and has spent the last few years prioritizing their existence, buying them shoes, driving them to school, taking them on play dates. She works infrequently. “It’s an incredibly difficult thing to know you’re going to walk away from your life. I check out in a lot of ways.” Not just physically, but emotionally. “Part of that is terrible and lonely . . . to do something you can’t really explain to people,” she sighed.

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“It’s not like I method out and turn into a writhing junkie, but I can’t explain what it is to lie in a pool of fake blood at 3 in the morning in Prospect Park,” as she did in the brutal beating sequence in “The Brave One.”

“Part of me loves that. It’s something that I have that they can’t have. It’s all mine. It’s special and creative and completes me in a way nothing else does, and part of it is terrifying. It’s terrifyingly lonely. There is a creative life that you lead that is at once horrible and shameful.”

But why is acting shameful?

“What you think about and who you become,” she said. The word ‘shame’ crops up over and over in the conversation.

“I never met somebody who was so willing to go where the material demands that you go. I think she found it quite thrilling,” said Jordan. “Every scene is seen through her eyes. There is a theme in her films -- I was worried -- where she is horrendously beaten, and horrendously abused, and she suffers it.” He reels off “Taxi Driver,” “The Accused,” “Silence of the Lambs.” " I did say to her at one stage, ‘You’re not a bit scared?’ Here [in this movie] you could be a target for gun freaks. Something in her wants to put herself in that dilemma.” Foster thrashes her demons in movie after movie after movie.

Anger underlies more than a few of the performances, but Foster insists her road map to making her character credible was not vengeance, but grief. And the magical thinking that accompanies great loss. Foster explained how the attack has rendered her character invisible in a way, defiled her so deeply that it’s taken away her corporeal nature.

“She is somebody who has no body,” says Foster. “She has this voice left, and she goes walking the streets at night. There’s a formlessness to her. A kind of invisibility. But the second she puts that gun in her pocket, the second she squeezes it, it materializes her for a moment.”

Her character’s choice is simple, existential. She wants to live, so her opponent -- the criminal -- must die. “I want to live. You die. It’s a continual choice for life,” says Foster. Moreover, Foster’s screen alter ego lives in the fantasy that maybe if she re-creates the moment her boyfriend is killed, “this time the ending is different. Maybe he’ll come back. Every time that she shoots, she has him back for a minute. It’s this sick, twisted life affirmation.”

As Foster talks her voice grows more urgent. Her eyes turn watery; she becomes caught up in the spell she’s consciously weaving. But then just as suddenly, the show’s over. Foster becomes self-conscious about how her thought process might sound in the cold, rational daylight. She recomposes herself, subtly shifting back into her everyday mode.

The raw Jodie Foster she saves for the screen.

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rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com


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