Johnny Depp's 1997 directorial debut, "The Brave", premiered at Cannes, was subsequently hissed out of the Competition and then promptly pulled from distribution by its director and star due to a case of artistic pettiness. Never released on any type of home video format, it's exactly this type of hard to find film that energizes a movie fanatic such as myself. This leads to colossal disappointment at times, but thankfully in the case of "The Brave", its not all that bad. In fact, Depp's Native American fairy tale about a man who sells his life to a snuff film produced (a wheelchair bound Marlon Brando) in exchange for $20,000, then proceeds to better the life of his family and friends living on the outskirts of a shanty town next to a landfill, actually reaches a level of poignant storytelling. This is exactly the style of movie that's been bowling over film critics from the likes of the Tavini Brothers or Roberto Benigni's "Life Is Beautiful".... an art film that maintains a sense of stagnant magic realism in the face of absurd living conditions. Was it maligned due to Depp's pretty-boy presence and lack of auteur status? Or was his cast of faintly oddball characters too much for serious critics to absorb? Either way, maybe "The Brave" was a bit ahead of its time, especially when a supposedly loopy film such as this recently took home top honors from the fest.
Based on a book by Gregory McDonald (who created the "Fletch" character!), it's been written that Depp changed a majority of the original script to embrace some of the funkiness that plays out in the finished product. Living in the same trash heap of a town is an oil covered worker played by Frederick Forrest who watches over his son, incessantly (and inexplicably) constantly running in a large hamster wheel. Then there's the local pimp (Luis Guzman) who floats through the film as if he's never given up the role that made him famous a year before in "Boogie Nights", and who meets an especially violent end at the hands of Depp. Yet, through all this shagginess, "The Brave" is ultimately a countdown to a man's sacrifice and his attrition towards his family. He builds a huge outdoor playground for the children in the town, complete with big screen TV, patio lights strung around a slide and carnival music piped in from.... somewhere. Sweet and alternately just downright weird, its an image I won't soon forget.
The few minutes shared on screen between mentor Brando and mentee Depp play like a poor man's version of Colonel Kurtz rambling on about life and death, but its a scene that resonates nonetheless, setting up the dark undercurrents that propel Depp to make a dreary decision. For its 2 hour and ten minute running time, "The Brave" glacially builds up to the quiet walk Depp embarks upon at the end of the film, complete with metal door crashing and horrors left unsaid. It's a chilling moment in a film with an underserved legacy.