By Louis Allred

Harry Brown opens with a cameraphone video documenting a young man’s gang initiation; egged on by his fellow thugs, he smokes crack out of a lightbulb to cheers and congratulations. The video then jumps to (what I assume is) the same guy tearing ass through the streets on a motorcycle, still shown on cameraphone. Crossing through a park, a young mother with a stroller is in his path. He decides to harass the lady; doing donuts around her, firing a gun wildly in her direction. Then, with a puff of blood, he accidentally tags her in the head. He freaks out, and rides to a main street. Not paying attention, he darts in front of a Mack truck and is run over, still shown in first-person. For all the tension pulsing through that sequence, after it was over I just looked at the screen and said to myself, “Huh.”

Sadly, the rest of the movie never reached beyond that vague “huh” feeling.

The film stars Michael Caine as the titular Brown, shown from the beginning as an obviously worn-out elderly fellow. His wife sits comatose in a hospital bed, and his only real social interactions are chess games with his friend Leonard at the local pub. He peers out his window constantly, monitoring the chavs that now populate the nearby park, and avoids the pedestrian tunnel nearby, where most of their activity goes down. Harry’s wife passes shortly into the film, leaving him with only Leonard.

Shortly after her death, Leonard confesses his fear of the thugs to Harry. He shows Harry a knife he’s been carrying, insinuating that he may be forced to use it one day. Harry tries to talk him down, and suggests he go to the police. Leonard says that he already has, to no avail. Later that night, Leonard is victimized at home yet again, and barges out of his apartment, loudly calling out the thugs. As one might expect, the next morning the police tell Harry that Leonard was found murdered. A drunken night at the bar later, Harry gets mugged by one of the thugs, but in a flash, turns his own knife against him and kills him under a bridge.

Thus begins ex-Marine Harry’s career as a vigilante. Harry Brown pulls few punches showing how rough this career gets. The scenery is gray and often deteriorating, with robberies and assaults a constant in the neighborhood; becoming a kind of white noise, like traffic. Deaths are often gruesome and sudden; blood spurting out of heads and throats and stomachs. And the general tone of the film is bleak. Even when the police are around, they’re often shown as unable, or just unwilling, to help. As a cop investigating Leonard’s death, Emily Mortimer’s facial expressions alone show not only how powerless the police have been, but how aware she is of this fact. The acting is good, for the most part. Caine shows more vulnerability here than he did in the Batman films, or even Children of Men, an even bleaker film than this. Some people are talking Oscar for him; I don’t know if I’d go that far, or if the Oscars will even remember this movie come next year, but he did quite well.

However, the grime and blood and gloom come at a cost for the film in general. Despite its shocking moments, Harry Brown ultimately left me numb. There’s no balance of tone, nothing to leaven the horrors presented. Even Children of Men, a movie that is, if not the bleakest film of the decade, a frontrunner for that honor, had its humorous parts. Gallows humor it may have been, but when you’re chased by a crazed resistance leader in dystopian England, a joke or two helps cut the tension and add some dimension. There’s not one joke or light moment in this film; it’s just a series of horrible events. Scenes of depravity are interrupted by a bullet to someone’s head. Cool as that may sound to some, it just got to me, and after a while, I clicked into autopilot to see the film through. “Oh, someone else got shot in the throat. Huh.”

The film ambles along sort of aimlessly: Harry hunting down one guy, who leads him to another, who gives up another guy, and so forth. It culminates in a final showdown that’s, honestly, a bit contrived and not all that satisfying. I get that the film is Harry’s reluctant descent into the criminal underworld, but it never comes up for air. It’s an hour and a half of, “Eew! How horrible! Isn’t this horrible?” It’s not a terrible movie, but ninety minutes of urban horror and bureaucratic failure without a buffer had me mentally checking out before it was over. Caine and Mortimer – all the actors, really – gave it their best, and succeed on that front, but when the film ended, I was just glad it was over.