There's probably no such thing as a liberal, enlightened vigilante movie, but Harry Brown's harrowing surfaces and a sunset performance of dignity and smothered wrath by Michael Caine give this minor movie a deeper mood than you would expect. The film is easily synopsized as a raging-geezer drama, and it's not the first of its kind. Charles Bronson was making Death Wish sequels up into an age when he closely resembled children's TV host Captain Kangaroo. Gran Torino proved that fans still wanted to see Eastwood preserving the integrity of his lawn at an age when he ought to be paying other people to mow it.
So we've seen this movie before, but rarely done this crazy. Where Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank showed the red flow of life in a dump of a British housing estate, Harry Brown's location is pure mahogany-tinged death. The weirdoes he encounters seem like actors in a prequel to A Clockwork Orange, and the visual cues resemble Gaspar Noe's Irreversible.
One stage for the action is a pedestrian underpass below the road that no one seems to be able to avoid. These horror-story people-coops in England are called "sink estates"—the tunnel leading out is the open plughole.
Caine's Harry Brown is a cautious, ill, old Londoner with little left to lose. He has a mate, Leonard (David Bradley, your go-to actor when you need an undertaker), whom he meets at the grim local pub. Both are harassed by the thugs on the estate.
Leonard is aware of Harry's past as a Royal Marine, and when things get worse, Len asks Harry if he ever killed a man during his service. The quiet way Caine phrases the reply, "You can't ask me that, Len," gives us everything Caine ever had in his prime: the decency and the steel beneath it.
Maddened by the way the idle kids go at him, Len hides a bayonet under his sweater before he takes a walk. And that's the last of him. A female constable (Emily Mortimer) brings Harry the news of Len's murder. That's when Harry goes out to buy a pistol.
The underground gun merchant's shack looks as if the Bobby Sands of Hunger had redecorated the walls with his own homemade pigments. The host, Stretch (Sean Harris), is a freakish stripling with wavy scars all over his torso. He tends a park-size marijuana plantation concealed behind black trash bags, and when not freebasing from the barrel of his pistol, he's taping some amateur porn.
Watching Caine slowly decide what needs to be done, and conquering the fear and the disgust before he does it, makes one happy—as happy as watching Noomi Repace's Lisbeth watch the Land Rover burn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. At such moments, a movie does the thinking for you, which is why vigilante tales always succeed.
Director Daniel Barber disguises the manipulation in the film as best he can. He finds pity in the story, with Mortimer, as always, a well of sympathy. The cops are otherwise inept, especially Iain Glen as a fatuous chief launching something called Operation Blue Jay and starting what looks like an urban insurrection in the housing complex.
For a film that can be so much about noise, it's in the quieter scenes, as when Caine's Harry finally decides to talk about his war—showing the cool side of slow—that Harry Brown appears most accomplished. In fact, the quieter the film gets, the better it is.
'Harry Brown' opens on Friday, May 7, at the Rialto Cinemas Lakeside, 551 Summerfield Road, Santa Rosa. 707.525.4840.