A couple of months back I had the slightly dubious pleasure of watching Harry Brown. It’s your basic revenge story set in a grimy and unglamorous London estate. Harry Brown is a widower whose best friend is tormented and finally killed by some drug dealing youths operating with apparent impunity in the area. Harry is also an ex soldier of some kind, and he in turn destroys the gang, principally by killing key members. It’s slow moving, lumbering actually, and the characters’ inertia carries them through the story.
It brought to my memory another Michael Caine movie with some passing structural similarities: Get Carter. Made in around 1970, it’s the tale of a London professional hard man who travels to Newcastle investigate and avenge his brother’s murder. The setting is similarly tough, run down or even perhaps beaten down. The revenge pattern in the grim setting, the uncompromising nature of the characters, are similar, but they are quite different films.
Harry Brown slips comfortably into the same kind of genre alternately satirized and idolized by Kill Bill. Justice can’t be gotten legitimately: the one lone figure can make a difference. It’s the classic Western story, down to the final climactic show-down. The violence is brief and pointed, somewhat uncontrolled but it serves a kind of moral function inasmuch as the good guy wins. The film does not linger on the violence, but presses swiftly on, serving its story interest.
Probably more importantly, Harry Brown wants to be political. By showing the negligence and indifference of the authorities, it reinforces the necessity of the vigilante’s actions. It places the characters in the context of a society that is itself entirely rotten. Revenge supplants justice.
It is thus far less glamorous than you might expect from a revenge movie, but it creates a moral statement. At the end of the film, I think we’re supposed to feel satisfied with the course of the events.
Get Carter does not sit so comfortably in the revenge genre. It is at least part a film noir, as Jack’s first actions are the investigative routine. Harsh and abrasive, but set on finding the truth, we can begin the film with Carter as Marlowe or Spade. But where they continue on the moral high road, Carter crosses over comfortably into the actions of a villain, murdering those who have crossed him in cold blood.
The earlier film does not try to expand its focus from the small group of nefarious characters: the society in which they live is kept at the periphery. It appears to be functional, and when called on the police are totally effective. The evil of the characters is particular to them, they are not the emblems of a whole society on the precipice.
Carter’s killings thus become far more personal: not nameless thugs seen from afar, but people he knows. For Harry Brown, however personal his motive, his targets are at a remove. They are interchangeable to him, and to us.
This gives the violence a much harder edge as well as diminishing the moral force of the killings. Brown is a champion of society, Carter is just one vile criminal slaughtering other vile criminals. This gives each death more power: each is more affecting. We cannot distance ourselves from Carter’s killings as we can from Brown’s. We know who he is killing, and why. We know to what extent they personally deserve their fate because we have been shown, rather than told.
I have to think that Harry Brown has failed to really make the impact that I think it wanted to. It can’t quite manage the full indictment of the police and society for allowing the situation to develop the way it does, and its revenge theme is too pedestrian to really grab your attention. Whereas, I think Get Carter does manage to engage with personal issues of revenge. It uses sex and violence to tell its story without glamorizing them, or asserting that the acts are morally justifiable. It may not be a true classic, but it definitely succeeds on its own terms.