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The Brave (1997)

The sort of personal project a big movie star picks for a directorial debut, this sidestepped even direct-to-video in the UK to become a late night cable premiere - which is unsurprising given its gloomy subject matter, vaguely arty approach and extremely measured pace. It also builds up to the torture and murder of its central character and then doesn't show it on screen, which is as much of a disappointment as a relief - though violence is tossed in at the climax as Johnny Depp bites off Luis Guzman's ear and throttles him.

Based on a Gregory (Fletch) MacDonald novel, it's sort of a cross between Dodes'ka-den and 8mm. Raphael (Depp, also director and co-writer), an Indian, lives with his wife Rita (Elpidia Carillo) and two kids on a junkyard that contains the wrecks of old carnival rides and a futile oil-derrick run by mad Lou Senior (Frederic Forrest) using his goat-fondling retarded son Lou Junior (Max Pehrlich) as a human hamster in a giant wheel. Following a tip given in a bar, Raphael goes to a downtown warehouse where the menacing Larry (Marshall Bell) takes him into a subterranean chamber complete with what looks like Karloff's chair from Bride of Frankenstein to meet McCarthy (Marlon Brando), a wheelchair-bound, harmonica-playing mastermind who gives 'the brave' a folksy, philosophical spiel before setting a price of $50,000 on his life. Raphael goes back to his hovel and spends the next few days being nice to his family, buying luxuries which prompt Rita to a suspicion that he's gone back to crime, and making his peace with the world. He entrusts an agonised priest (Clarence Williams III) with the task of ensuring the money is paid up so the family can escape the destruction of the junkyard and fends off occasional ominous threats from Larry, who makes it clear what'll happen if he defaults on his agreement to star in a snuff movie, and ex-partner-in-crime Luis (Guzman), who wants to cut himself in on whatever has made him flush with cash.

It uses clips from Glen or Glenda and Orphée on TV screens and goes for a mix of realism and the surreal, with glimpses of bizarre background characters (a profane scoutmaster, a drag queen, a man in ragged formal wear, a dancing drunk in underpants) and a general air of baked desert misery which feels like something from 1970s cinema (Zabriskie Point, Steelyard Blues). It is too long and slight for what it is, and Depp has so much invested in the film he doesn't quite have enough left over to give a performance, but on weirdness and obscurity it just about scrapes past.

First published in this form here.

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