The Brave (1997)

The Brave DVD Cover

Johnny Depp’s directorial debut The Brave (1997) tells the story of Raphael (Depp), a young Native American father who, out of desperation, makes a pact with a sadistic McCarthy (Marlon Barndo) to be tortured and killed in exchange for $50,000. The film premiered at Cannes in 1997 to standing ovations , yet devastatingly bad reviews in the press. Depp’s reaction to the reviews was to refuse to release it in North America. As a result it’s a difficult to find film. I found a version someone had posted on YouTube. Otherwise foreign  DVDs are available on sites like Ebay for sale.

Overly long at 2 hours and slowly paced, the film isn’t so much as bad as it is weak. Raphael is an ex-convict, a failure as a husband and father, and feeling useless enough that he is willing to make this Faustian bargain to end his life to save his own family’s, but his sense of desperation is never convincingly portrayed. We’re also told (repeatedly) that his family and relatives are going to be forced off their land by developers in the coming days, but other than being mentioned, there is no reaction to the threat by anyone in the community and the opportunity to build on the tension is squandered.

Johnny Depp as Raphael in The Brave (1997)
Johnny Depp as Raphael in The Brave (1997)

Once Raphael has accepted an advance on the $50k he is given one week before he is expected to return to meet his fate. With the premise in place, Raphael is left to try to make amends with his family, trying to buy their love and make up for lost time, without ever explaining where the money came from or what it is he’s gotten himself into. The family and Raphael feel disconnected and isolated in the story and it’s not until the second half of the film that we begin to have more of a sense of how they fit into the community when they begin to interact with other characters.

One assumes Depp was trying use the film to underscore the plight of Native American’s but that theme never feels fully integrated with the story. Quite the contrary actually, I felt that you could have easily transplanted Raphael and his family’s plight into any culture, any poverty stricken neighbourhood, and the story would have functioned equally well if not better.

The film is based on a book by mystery writer Gregory MacDonald who is better known for his Fletch series, and was adapted for the screen by Depp, Paul McCudden and Depp’s brother D.P. Depp. Iggy Pop provided the score, which went a long way to supporting and elevating the action on the screen. Iggy also makes a cameo towards the end of the movie at Raphael’s going away feast.

The last twenty minutes of the movie is worth sticking it out for as everything does come together in an unexpected way and Depp shows some restraint as a film maker in choosing which violence he does show and what he does not.

Personally, I think the heart of the film is overshadowed by the sensationalism of the “snuff film” premise. I also felt that Raphael as a character could have been more nuanced and gained more empathy from the audience had he simply been struggling against impossible odds and still not been able to overcome them.

Not nearly as big of a train wreck as I had been anticipating, and while I am glad I sought the film out, I don’t think it will ultimately rank very high on my list of memorable performances by Depp.

By the Numbers

  • Directorial debut by Depp and screen-writing credit.
  • 2nd film in which Depp shares screen time with Marlon Brando. Don Juan DeMarco (1995) being the the first.
  • 3rd film in which Depp wears a bandana. Platoon (1989) and Don Juan DeMarco (1995) being the other two.
  • 3rd film in which Depp has connections to Native American or Aboriginal Character – the others are Arizona Dream (1992) and Dead Man (1995)
  • 2nd Depp related film in which Iggy Pop makes an appearance – Dead Man (1995) was the other.

Ironic Trivia – Larry (Marshall Bell) says to Raphael (Depp) after threatening his family “I guess we will see you in the movies, Tonto.” Depp would eventually go on to play Tonto in this year’s The Lone Ranger (2013).

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

In Don Juan DeMarco, Depp plays the title character, a seemingly delusional 20-something who believes he is the direct descendant of Don Juan and dresses like “Zorro” complete with mask and sword. The movie opens with Don Juan seducing one last woman before preparing to sacrifice himself in a duel with his great rival since he can’t have the woman of his dreams, the beautiful Dona Ana. Dr. Jack Mickler an ageing psychiatrist, played by Marlon Brando, is days from retiring when he gets the call to talk down the suicidal Don Juan. Pretending to be Don Juan’s rival’s uncle – Don Octavio DeFlores, Mickler gets Don Juan into a psychiatric hospital where the county gets an order to hold him for assessment. Mickler has 10 days to assess him before they have to decide to commit him or release him. Mickler is forced to try to unravel Don Juan’s incredible tale before the clock runs out on the holding order and his own career.

Please to make your acquaintance, I am Don Juan DeMarco...

Please to make your acquaintance, I am Don Juan DeMarco…

Don Juan DeMarco is a charming film with Depp managing to lose himself in the character of Don Juan, so convincingly that it’s almost as if he’s a time traveller plopped down in the present from some 16th or 17th century romantic fairytale. Even when Dr. Mickler is trying to poke holes in Don Juan’s story pointing out the anachronistic nature of his life growing up in a remote village in Mexico that still embraces duels with swords, Don Juan never wavers in his conviction. His own fantastic story seems less delusional since he acknowledges the reality of the situation that he is being held in a psychiatric hospital and that he accepts that his story seems unbelievable to those around him.

Does this outfit make me look like a Pirate?

Does this outfit make me look like a Pirate?

Don Juan’s charm allows him to win over his attendants male and female alike and infuse everyone around him with a new found zest for life and love, Dr. Mickler included. Mickler’s own romantic life is awakened with his wife (Faye Dunaway) who he begins to see in a new light.

It’s not until more than half way through the movie that Don Juan’s incredible story starts to show some signs of becoming unravelled as his paternal grandmother is found living in Queens begins to fill Dr. Mickler in on the “truth”. At this point both Dr. Mickler and we the audience have bought into Don Juan’s story and don’t want the fantasy to end.

The film does a good balancing act of resolving the central conflict while still allowing the audience and pivotal characters have their cake and eat it too. After all this IS a romantic fantasy and demands a happy ending.

Love wins the day - Don Juan DeMarco gets the girl.

Love wins the day – Don Juan DeMarco gets the girl.

I enjoyed the film and the performance of the principle actors Depp, Brando, and Dunaway. One of the reasons I appreciate Depp as an actor is because he has the ability to own a character by completely giving himself over to a character. He becomes the character to the point where the audience only sees the character and not necessarily the actor. A little aside, I had the privilege of seeing Michael Caine introduce “The Quiet American” at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2002. During his introduction Caine commented that when he watches one of his own performances he always catches glimpses of himself acting, but that his performance as Thomas Folwer in The Quiet American he found that he disappeared as an actor in the role. It is exactly Depp’s ability to become so engrossed and disappear in the role that suits him so well to these “character” roles. Actually, whenever someone describes Depp as a “character” actor I wince a little because it sounds as if they mean it in a demeaning way. Don’t get me wrong there are truly great character actors that serve a specific role in movies that act as pivotal characters, but are meant to be forgettable and meant to blend into the story and scenery. By contrast the characters that Depp so often plays are unique, larger than life personae that form the very heart of the story. There’s only one Edward Scissorhands, only one Capt. Jack Sparrow, and only one Don Juan Demarco. Yes he becomes engrossed in the characters and the characters become larger than life, but “character actor” is not the right way to describe what he does.

So you think you can act? - Two greats square off.

So you think you can act? – Two acting greats square off.

It’s been mentioned that when Depp signed on to play Don Juan DeMarco he did so under the condition that Brando be sought to play the role of Mickler. Whether true or not, Brando screen presence as an actor is still undeniable even at this late stage in his career. From the moment he is on screen he commands your attention. While Faye Dunaway is given little to do other than react to Brando’s attempts to rekindle their love life as a married couple in the film, she too has a presence about her that was previously demonstrated in her pairing with Depp in “Arizona Dream”.

In case you’re keeping score this is Depp’s tenth film, the first in which we see him with earrings, first with ‘funky’ facial hair in the form of a goatee and moustache, and the second film in which he wears a bandanna on his head in at least one scene – the first being a brief scene in Platoon. I guess you could debate the facial hair since Depp did have a pretty good pencil moustache going in Ed Wood.

As far as romantic comedies go it’s a light movie that has its charms, but it’s doubtful it will leave you with any renewed passion for life. It may however leave you with an earworm in the form of Bryan Adam’s title song Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman? which is used throughout the film as incidental music.

I bet you’re humming it right now…

Up next in the tribute rotation is the Jim Jarmusch indie film “Dead Man”.