(Today's guest post is by Karaka Pend of Permissible Arms. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.
Also, for a continuation of Karaka Pend's guestpost, click here.)
Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)
"No remorse. No pity. It was as easy as stepping on a bug...We are different people now than we were then." --Bill Guarnere, "Band of Brothers" by Stephen Ambrose
For anyone familiar with Batman, the idea that vigilantism is an expression of vengeance is generally understood. The tasks Batman ascribes to himself--to clear the streets of Gotham City of criminals, to defend Gotham from those who would destroy it--come directly from his experience witnessing his parents killed by a violent mugging as a child. The rubric is simplistic: cause (murder) --> effect (the Batman comes to life).
In "Harry Brown," Michael Caine is Batman. His Gotham City is an Elephant and Castle housing estate in South London; his secret identity is his service in the Royal Marines as a veteran of North Ireland. But unlike Batman, "Harry Brown" and its titular character distill the crux of being a vigilante down to its stark and often ugly search for what he or she considers justice.
There are no heroes here.
Harry Brown, a pensioner whose wife lies terminally ill in a nearby hospital, avoids the underpass where the local gang have established their base. The underpass offers a quicker transit between Brown's home and his wife's hospital room, but also acts as a haven for young criminals who terrorize the locals, including a couple attempting to walk through the underpass. Brown attempts to ignore it, and them, in favor of concentrating on being with his wife as she nears her death.
Brown's only companions are the bartender at his local pub, Sid, and his fellow pensioner Leonard, with whom he drinks and plays chess. Brown's retreat from the world is evident: he exists in the flat that bears so many markers of his wife; in a chair by her bedside; in the pub with Leonard; and virtually in no other place. He is a man reduced.
He learns that his wife is dying, and the criminals prevent him from reaching her bedside in time to say goodbye by blocking the underpass; Brown weighs the possibility of getting through the underpass with his clear need to be near his wife, and ultimately he chooses to take the longer path. His anger is only mitigated by his grief, and for a brief moment it seems as though his grief will overtake him. That is, until Leonard, who has been a victim of the cruel pranks and provocations of the underpass gang, comes to Brown. Brown puts him off, suggesting Leonard should go to the police (who have dismissed Leonard's concerns). A moment before, when Len had asked Brown about his time in the Royal Marines, Brown says, "When I met my Cath, I knew that all that stuff had to be locked away. I made that decision all those years ago, and I stuck to it." It's clear he's unwilling to open whatever violence is in his past, out of habit, out of respect for his late wife.
The gang kills Len that night after he goes to the underpass with an old bayonet following enflamed feces shoved through his letterbox. Suddenly Brown is thoroughly unmoored--his wife is dead, his best mate is dead, and all that is left is an anger and helplessness without a clear focus. That is, until he is mugged at knifepoint by one of the members of the gang.
As an attacker thrusts a weapon in his face, his long-dormant training kicks in, and in one swift move Brown turns the knife on his attacker, stabbing him in the heart and leaving him to his death. Brown hurries home, mechanically stripping any evidence of his involvement from his clothes and body.
This is a complicated movie, for all that the motivations are simple. Brown, portrayed brilliantly by Michael Caine, is a man whose past was marked by engagement with paramilitary forces during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. He set aside that capability when he married, and it would never had resurfaced had the deaths of his wife and friend not happened in such close proximity. Brown becomes a vigilante because it is clear to him that the police are ineffective in ending the threat of these gang members (and to a larger extent the drug traffickers he also kills). Hicock, one of the two detectives, says that if it is Brown doing these things, "then he's doing us a favor." The Inspector General doesn't believe Frampton when she suggests it the killer is Brown. Brown, thus, is in the perfect position to target and eradicate his enemy with little repercussion, which also contributes to his motives and choices.
There's a remarkable--and purposeful--dichotomy between Brown as a frail older man, a pensioner, and the seasoned Royal Marine that seems to reside inside of him. It raises some fascinating questions: is training ever forgettable? Can you ever forget the things you have done, the lives you have taken? Brown, for whom life has little charm without his wife and friend, is willing to trade his own for a piece of vengeance, and more than succeeds in his goal.
The film also forces the question: can violence only be matched with violence, one more powerful than the other? Brown manages to achieve what he does with an exacting series of actions, each one ending in death or injury to his enemy, where the police's attempt to charge on evidence fails. The riots initially push back at the intervening police force until the police bring in more officers and subdue the population of the estate.
"Harry Brown" doesn't indicate that Brown is correct for exacting violent revenge on the gang, apart from Frampton's concern; but neither does it suggest he is in the wrong. Brown's violence has a target that the police have difficulty reaching, and in one sense he does indeed "do them a favor." He provides an opportunity for intervention without revealing his involvement. He operates in the shadows, setting up a scenario that does, eventually, end in justice. And he walks away from it all without ever being named. Perhaps this is what the best vigilante achieves--and what Batman cannot have: justice without acknowledgement.