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).

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