“You’ve failed to maintain your weapon, son.”
Harry Brown begins with a jarring, grainy video of a gang initiation: a young man takes a hit from a pipe, is handed a loaded gun, and rides off with another member on a motorbike to create havoc. When a stray bullet takes down a single mother pushing a stroller, they make a run for it, but don’t get very far. Such is life on “The Estate”, a series of London apartment blocks where youth gangs run rampant, dealing drugs and ruthlessly beating down anyone who comes near them, while low-income families and old-age pensioners remain locked indoors for their own safety. Inserted between these early images, the tiny, plain font of the film’s opening credits leaps out at you, as jarring as the action on screen. Harry Brown is a small, sturdy film that – despite its lean story and uneven pace – makes a firm impression. It also provides star Michael Caine the opportunity to play a sympathetic but tough character, and his performance should lead to recognition if the film’s economic proportions allow it to be remembered by year’s end.
Harry (Caine) lives a quiet, lonely existence. His daughter is long-since dead, and his wife is slowly fading away in a local hospital. His only remaining friend, Leonard (David Bradley), has been taunted and harassed so much by the gangs that he decides to take the fight to the violent “children” in the form of an old WWII bayonet. When an uneasy police inspector (Emily Mortimer) and her subordinate inform Harry of Leonard’s death, Harry considers his long-suppressed Marine training and takes a Death Wish approach to neighborhood watch problem-solving.
An early interrogation scene in the local police station shows what repugnant thugs Harry and the detectives are facing; without remorse, respect or any sense that they value human life, the gang members are portrayed as violent and reprehensible animals, without any of the normal clever/humorous/stylish trappings films sometimes layer upon such characters. They are grimy, loathsome individuals, and perhaps here the film makes its first mistake: there is no question of balance, no shades of grey. The very distinct line is drawn early and often between what can easily be labeled the Weak Good and the Powerful Evil. The only middle ground is Harry, a pleasant, sweet-natured man who by nature of being left alone in his sorrow, decides to use vigilante tactics to make his small, enclosed world somewhat more livable.
The pace of the film is largely to the point, most scenes flowing urgently through like an alternately savage and quiet gauntlet. The film’s centerpiece, however, is a lengthy scene that finds Harry attempting to purchase guns from a pair of dealers. Exquisitely paced, its performances and mood are so perfectly gauged that it is one of the most harrowing scenes so far this year. Harry shows up at the doorstep of Stretch (Sean Harris of 24 Hour Party People and the Red Riding trilogy), a gaunt, half-naked man whose body is a frightening road map of criss-crossing scars and tattoos. Harris conveys an intense and haunting presence that is hard to forget. That Stretch is the most reasonable of the criminal element in the film makes him all the more fascinating, and Harris’ acting that much more impressive.
The film only falters in minor ways. Mortimer gives her detective a most burdened countenance, but we never learn what is weighing her down, or why she has specifically requested her assignment to The Estate in the first place. The film itself is similarly burdened by a too-grim tone that accompanies the all-or-nothing moral barometer, the washed out hues and dilapidated settings almost overwhelming the senses. And for such a sympathetic character, it’s a shame that Harry is set on his blunt-force-trauma plot path so easily. There’s really no questioning what’s going to happen, just who will survive the bloodbath that ensues.
Yet Harry Brown ultimately wins you over; its assured but small stature impresses, its visceral action thrills, and two of its actors give memorable, haunting performances. In these pre-Summer weeks, that’s a lot to be handed in the guise of an art-house film.