Roughly an hour into Daniel Barber’s Harry Brown, there’s a scene that pretty much encompasses everything that’s wrong with the movie. Our titular character, a widower and former Royal Marine played by Michael Caine, has been pushed into vigilantism against the violent gangs who control his council estate following the murder of his friend (David Bradley). He has gone to the hideout of a pair of local criminals to buy a gun. He enters a den of sin and inequity; it’s not enough that the guys are two tattooed scumbags, or that one is snorting coke, or that the other is injecting heroin into a near-comatose girl on the couch. No, there’s also a sex tape of one of the guys and the dead-eyed smack girl going. Oh, and on the way into this cheery scene, Harry is brought through a marijuana grow room that would make Conrad from Weeds jealous.So what I’m saying is, subtlety isn’t the movie’s strong suit. But it’s more than that; the sequence drags out about twice as long as it should, as the camera lovingly caresses every dirty detail of the repulsive scene. As a director, Barber can’t get his shit together—he can’t decide if he’s making a gritty social document or an escapist vigilante shoot-em’-up/modern-day Western. In trying to have it both ways, he accomplishes neither; the picture is too shallow to be thought-provoking, but too unseemly to work as an entertainment.
It starts off well enough, with a harrowing opening sequence of a horrifying crime and its aftermath (inventively staged as cell phone video). After that little corker, we meet Harry, who lives in a grim, cheerless building and trudges off dutifully every day to visit his dying wife. “I don’t think she knows I’m there anymore,” he confesses to Leonard (Bradley), who he meets every afternoon in the neighborhood pub for a game of chess (nobody in movies ever plays chess just to play chess, of course, so the game is trotted out as a metaphor later). When his wife finally goes, he leans even more heavily on Leonard, so his friend’s death in the hands of local toughs hits him especially hard.
Caine’s work in these early scenes is masterful; he’s not afraid to play Harry as a fragile old man (there’s a tremendous scene where a door closes and he just falls apart), but when Leonard asks, of Harry’s Marine days, “Did you every kill anyone?”, the darkness in the old man’s eyes as he looks up at his friend tells us everything we need to know. But, aside from those isolated moments, we’re about halfway through the picture before we realized how underdeveloped the character actually is. The film leans heavily on what we already know and feel about Caine (and particularly the flinty characters he often played in the ‘60s and ‘70s) without giving him much of an actual personality to play; first he’s sad and feeble, and then he’s a badass.
There’s a subplot concerning the investigation of Leonard’s death by cops Frampton (Emily Mortimer) and Hicock (Charlie Creed-Miles), but in spite of the actors’ best efforts, it’s a non-starter; the resulting scenes are all “been there, done that” duds, from her development of the wild theory that maybe, just maybe, that old guy could be behind it all to her partner’s resigned insistence that “As far as I’m concerned, Harry Brown’s doing us a favor.” Barber’s got some directorial style—the menace is thick, the cinematography is flashy, the shock sound design gets multiple rises out of us—and his set pieces (like the big riot scene at the end) are impressively staged. But frequently, they exist solely as flair, adding little to the big picture.
Harry’s Christian name is surely no coincidence; in its broad story beats, Harry Brown is a throwback to the hard-line ‘70s “one-man crusade” pictures like Dirty Harry and Death Wish (there’s even a telltale moment at the end of a slimeball cop/politico referencing the force of the “silent majority”). But Barber is frequently distracted by the film’s own odiousness—he’s so busy fetishising the lurid details that he loses focus of the narrative (there’s a sense of the filmmaker getting off on the pulpy brutality of it all). In a manner reminiscent of Joel Schumacher’s 8mm, it only manages to see this grisly world from the outside in, all neon surfaces and grainy flash. But in keeping its distance, it sensationalizes the material less than a film that’s truly willing to get inside its lurid, grim world of urban decay (like, say, Taxi Driver), yet somehow leaves you feeling dirtier afterwards. With its self-conscious artsiness and tsk-tsk moralizing, Barber seems to strive for higher ground than the vigilante-picture roots, but when it comes down to the wire, he goes for the cheap thrill every time. Harry Brown delivers, yes, but on a basic, primeval, and frankly ugly level.