When 2003’s Pirates Of The Caribbean: The Curse Of The Black Pearl catapulted Johnny Depp to superstardom, it surprised a lot of people. Not because Depp was unworthy or unqualified for that level of fame, but because he’d spent his career doggedly resisting mainstream acceptance. His choices of roles in the previous decade and a half suggested a man attempting to do penance for having become famous playing a sexy undercover cop on a silly television show. In a perverse extended act of reverse narcissism, Depp stopped just short of undergoing disfiguring cosmetic surgery in a doomed attempt to make the world forget that he’s beautiful.
Though he’s no stranger to mainstream crap, Depp has consistently sought out roles that obscured his striking good looks. He’s played a cross-dressing filmmaker, a beatific unfinished creature with scissors for hands, and the king of gonzo journalism, among other things. According to James B. Stewart’s Disney War, Depp originally intended for his sashaying swashbuckler in Pirates Of The Caribbean to be another entry in his rogues’ gallery of cinematic grotesques. Depp and director Gore Verbinski initially envisioned Captain Jack Sparrow as a pirate whose nose had been lopped off in battle. Needless to say, Disney bosses were none too keen on the man who would later be named People’s Sexiest Man Alive twice in one decade playing a noseless pirate. So they compromised and let Depp give his breakthrough character Keith Richards’ boozy swagger, plus a sartorial style deeply indebted to mid-period Captain Lou Albano.
Depp spent much of the 1990s trying to purge memories of 21 Jump Street from the public consciousness with risky, challenging roles in offbeat fare. He was infinitely more comfortable spoofing and subverting his teen-idol image in movies like John Waters’ 1990 cult comedy Cry Baby than in playing it straight. So when it came time for Depp to make his 1997 directorial debut, he chose The Brave, a project that sounded less like a gritty independent film than like a parody of the kind of dreary downers that fills Sundance schedules year-in and year-out.
If you’ve never heard of The Brave, there’s good reason. Though it played Cannes and was released internationally, it’s never been released domestically, either theatrically or on DVD, which gives it a certain exotic, forbidden mystique. I was only able to secure a copy through the machinations of a MYOF operative who works at a nifty Los Angeles video store named Laser Blazer. It is human nature to want to seek out what is unavailable to us, even if the item in question is a beyond-bleak character study about an impoverished, alcoholic Native American ex-convict (Depp) who agrees to be tortured and killed on film in exchange for $15,000, to be given to his family following his death. The story sprang from an unlikely source: a 1991 novel by Gregory McDonald, best known as the man behind the long-running, lighthearted Fletch series.
The Brave opens with tribal drums playing over a long pan from imposing, oppressively sun-baked mountains to a squalid dump where children play in the garbage overlooking the sad little trailer where Depp lives with his family. The shot contrasts the majesty of nature with the tawdry, hopeless lives of Native Americans living forever in the shadow of genocide.
Depp’s family occupies the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder. They aren’t quite homeless, though nobody would mistake a crowded little trailer with no running water for a home. Depp’s wife glares sullenly at him. His children lie in bed in a depressed stupor. Depp has accomplished nothing in his short life. He’s a career criminal, a boozer, and a spectral, often absent presence in the life of his wife and children.
At a bar one lost night, Depp is given an opportunity to redeem himself in the grimmest manner imaginable. He’s never been able to provide for his family through honest labor, but he’s given an opportunity to martyr himself for their sake by a wheelchair-bound, bolo-tie-sporting eccentric played by Marlon Brando.
Brando posits Depp’s onscreen death as both art and a spiritual catharsis. In one of the windy, clearly improvised, abstractly philosophical monologues that came to define his post-Great Gazoo career, Brando talks loftily of dying as a return to the essence, and a test of mettle and bravery. We are born into pain, he argues, so isn’t it fitting that we should die in pain as well? Isn’t being tortured and murdered on film for a few thousand dollars really just part of the great cycle of life? Besides, Brando has to make good on his promise to provide for Depp’s family in his absence, right? If you can’t trust snuff filmmakers, who can you trust?
Brando’s angel of death at least attempts to put a spiritual face on Depp’s imminent death. That’s more than can be said for henchman Marshall Bell, a sniveling, theatrical villain who warns Depp that if he skips town with the money Brando has given him as an advance, he’ll track down Depp’s family. “Then I’m going to kill them. Then I’m going to fuck them. Then I’m going to eat them.”
Later, Bell tells Depp, “The other day I was driving down the highway, I had the air conditioner on, I was smoking my stogies, listening to some tunes, and this big fat crow lands on a billboard. Biggest, fattest crow I ever saw in my life. Then I fix on him, and he drops dead. Boom. In the sand. Damnedest thing I ever saw. Kind of made me sick. In fact, it made me poop. [Pregnant pause.] It made me poop my pants. It was about a four-inch, bell-shaped feces, very hard, very firm. Things haven’t been going too good for me. Lost my only friend. I’m so tired. I’m tired. I’m very, very tired.” Then he shows Depp a bloated corpse and gives him a bootleg version of stigmata by driving a stake through his hand, just in case anyone in the audience misses the parallels between Depp and a certain carpenter with crazy ideas about peace and love.
Depp’s sad little windfall allows him to spend his last days living like a king, albeit a monarch with perversely downscale tastes. Depp transforms his backyard into a makeshift amusement park for his children, stocks an outdoor refrigerator with only the finest orange soda and cheap beer, and buys a big television. It’s a poignantly pathetic take on the American dream at its tawdriest. Depp tells his friends and family that he got a job at a warehouse, though in the sad cosmology of The Brave, that sounds suspiciously like a fairy tale. The no-hopers living in the dump don’t have jobs, money, or running water: They have drinking problems, diseases, and prison records.
Depp, who also rewrote what was reportedly at one point a very powerful script by Paul McCudden, plays the protagonist as a man blessed with the sense of calm and resignation that sometimes comes with choosing to die. In accepting the most agonizing death imaginable, Depp paradoxically finds a strange power in the powerlessness of realizing that his only marketable skill lies in being willing to take the worst job in the world; laying down his life for the sick amusement of unseen sadists.
Depp’s performance is often powerful. It’s too bad Depp-as-writer-director chose to surround himself with a hammy array of Lynchian grotesques, like a soot-covered loon played by Max Perlich, who runs around in what appears to be a giant hamster wheel at the behest of father Frederic Forrest, then spends quality time fondling a goat at a boozy bash thrown by his soon-to-be-late chum. Depp seems to have encouraged all the extras to overact egregiously in the name of giving the film plenty of local color. They happily acquiesced.
Imminent death affords Depp the chance to finally be a responsible father and husband. He has a heart-to-heart talk with his son and finally gets his wife to stop glaring at him long enough to engage in some soft-focus, wildly acrobatic outdoor sex. It takes the looming specter of death to get Depp to finally embrace life.
As it heads into its third act, the film alternates between naked sentiment, melodramatic excess, and queasy miserablism. There’s something creepily manipulative about the way the film transforms Depp into a cardboard saint so his self-martyrdom will have meaning. The Brave lurches unsteadily to a foreordained conclusion, trudging slowly, slowly, slowly to a grim reckoning for its luckless hero, compromised at every turn by unnecessary subplots and a bizarre, distracting cameo from Iggy Pop—who also provided the score—gnawing on what appears to a giant turkey leg during one of Depp’s going-away parties.
The Brave ultimately plays like the world’s most depressing remake of Joe Versus The Volcano, with all the joy and whimsy replaced by gloom and grime. It’s a morbid, maudlin oddity that starts off slowly and never finds its footing. Having suffered through Depp’s well-meaning but dreary directorial debut, I can assure you that American audiences deprived of a legal means of checking out The Brave really aren’t missing much.
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco