Movie Review: Harry Brown- An Atmospheric and Shockingly Violent Vigilante Film That is Guided by Michael Caine’s Riveting Performance

Vigilantism is a widely explored subject in cinema and it varies in delivery, intention, and whether or not it’s considered a good trait to practice or condone. There are films such as Death Wish that explores the deep roots of revenge while Taxi Driver ventures into the subjective seclusion of a man perturbed by society’s faults. So safe it to say the themes of vigilantism are typical but the way we can approach it are varied mostly due to the focus on character purpose and the successful depiction of the society’s ills that make it a believable or sympathetic position. And in Daniel Barber’s Harry Brown, a sort of hypnotic concoction of Death Wish and Get Carter, the remarkable Michael Caine embodies a man on the edge in a society that can’t seem to fight drugs, random violence, and basic unlawfulness. Caine is the strong suit in this uncomfortably gritty depiction of a lawless London balancing emotional frailty and chilling defiance delivering justice to those who deserve punishment in a city that is failing to follow through with their system of common law. Be forewarned that Harry Brown is just as unsettling as Get Carter and as atmospheric as Taxi Driver, which shocks you with its graphic presentations of violence and has an attention grabbing sound design that will demand your attention even as the more languid parts begin to distract you away from the film. This is a film that will divide those who have personal feelings towards gun laws and vigilante justice, but Caine’s performance transcends this trivial point of view problem and is both emotionally gripping and awe inspiring.

The film’s opening is one of the most intriguing sequences of the film done splendidly with a handheld digital camera shot in a first person point of view. Here is where we understand the essential societal breakdown as two rambunctious teenagers shoot at a woman with a stroller and kill her in the intimidating cross fire. Harry Brown awakes the next morning to the news as his simplistic life of ritual is captured with stagnant camera work and methodically picked angles. Harry seems to be losing everything; his wife is hospitalized and his daughter is dead leaving him his only life long friend Leonard. Leonard, who is played by the wonderful British character actor David Bradley, is scared of his surroundings and the violent youth who constantly antagonize and threaten him on a daily basis. After Leonard is killed, an act that has faulty evidence due to Leonard’s own weapon being used against him, Harry’s rage that he has suppressed for many years ignites and goes on a vengeance rampage against the drug peddlers and down right evil youth in the underground of London. The story is familiar, which is an unfortunate rigidity to the vigilantism theme, but how it is delivered is the intriguing and gripping aspect of Harry Brown. From the riveting performances from Michael Caine, David Bradley, and Sean Harris, just off from the Red Riding Trilogy, and the haunting imagery, Harry Brown is a good film to experience despite its slower parts and occasional miscast roles.

Cinematography can be an incredible tool to not only capture specific action but also accentuate the moods and actions of a film with framing, lighting, and camera movement. The opening is one of those successful uses of camera work that not only presents the underlining problem of the film but also is used as a chaotic way to introduce us to the modern youth mentality of entertainment. But everything in Harry Brown is visually stunning, from steady shots to moving suspense building sequences, the entire purpose of the camera here is to fully immerse you into a crime ridden and desperate London. The grainy imagery and slow paced sequences are quite hypnotic, if not down right unsettling, making the very essence of this character’s decision to fight against the wrong in his section of town more essential. Everything we see from Harry Brown’s perspective is border line evil and the film doesn’t try to back peddle on slating the behavior as a victim mentality. When we meet a drug dealer and gun peddler named Stretch, played exquisitely well by Sean Harris, it is like Harry is descending into hell where there is a girl overdosing on heroine, amateur rape porn being played on the television, and a backroom of illegal marijuana being grown by the pounds. It’s intensely gritty, and the violence that is captured is quick, shockingly real, and incredibly loud as each gun shot resonates in your very skin. All the technical aspects work in creating a crime ridden atmosphere and a world that needs a redeemer, even a flawed one, if it’s pacing might lull people away and find some of the acting a bit underworked.

By underworked acting this can be attributed to Emily Mortimer, the only strong female role in the film, who just seems as though she is drugged in rigid pleasantry rather than feeling or expressing emotions. Her scenes are trumped by her police co-star Charlie Creed-Miles and, of course, the excellent performance of Michael Caine who not only balances his inner rage but also the familiar crying parts that only few can handle without being seen as overdoing it. It’s refreshing to see Michael Caine in a starring role again, considering his last main character portrayal was 2 years ago in his own remake of Sleuth, and he certainly can give a riveting and memorable performance. The other members of the cast luckily hold their own, including all of the teenagers that speak quickly and with a great deal of profanity it makes it very unlikely we’d be sympathetic once their own demise reaches them. But it really is Sean Harris who steals the show and will creep into your memory well after the film is over. His portrayal of a meth addicted sociopath is remarkably haunting and reinforces that victimless mentality, where people are responsible for their actions and should be held to it. It’s an interesting scenario to witness, considering Britain has one of the strictest gun laws in the world, and perhaps should contemplate why protection of yourself and property is an important consideration to take.

Harry Brown is a familiar piece of vigilantism that will please anyone looking for another Death Wish or hoping to see Michael Caine revisit some of his earlier darker pieces of acting such as Mona Lisa or Get Carter. However, Daniel Barber’s intriguing depiction of the bleak city and the horrific actions being taken by a youth that is offered total security in the future will convince anyone that this is a film that isn’t replicated in plot. Most of the performances range from good to excellent and the haunting scenarios and atmosphere of the city created by the meticulously chosen angular and gritty cinematography is a strong presentation. The violence is realistic and shocking so it might be a bit much for those who don’t care for the sight of blood. However, its realistic grittiness has a purpose and is done in impeccable fashion making Harry Brown a better version of similar vengeance titles in the last couple of years including another aging vigilante film with Mel Gibson in Edge of Darkness. It’s a steady paced film that has memorable acting, action, and a successful presentation of atmosphere capturing a crime infested part of London.

Grade: B

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