Cannes, 1997, and an enthused Johnny Depp unveils his directorial debut The Brave. The story of a Mexican Indian who agrees to play the victim in a snuff film, the picture is up for the Palme d'Or. However, the audience reaction is less than enthusiastic. In fact, it's downright cruel. Asked what he thought of the film, actor John Hurt claims it's unwatchable. The critics, meanwhile, are far less polite. Chastened, Depp leaves the Croissette and The Brave slips into obscurity.
So is The Brave abysmal? Watch the picture today and you'll probably wonder what all the fuss was about. A dark, bleary but often quite touching story, Depp's film is worth any number of the "what I really want to do is direct" vanity projects that get greenlit whenever a studio's keen to keep a star sweet. You know the sort of movies we mean - Edward Norton's Keeping The Faith, Diane Keaton's Unstrung Heroes, Jodie Foster's Home For The Holidays. Why would you want to watch ill-conceived, malnourished pictures like that when you can watch a film as idiosyncratic and committed as The Brave?
Based on a book by 'Fletch' author Gregory McDonald, The Brave of the title is Raphael (Johnny Depp), an alcoholic ex-con who lives on a trailer park with his young family. Since money is short and Raphael seems done with life, he arranges a meeting with the mysterious McCarthy (a wheelchair-bound Marlon Brando) who makes him an unusual offer - be tortured to death in the name of entertainment and receive $50,000 in return. Believing he has nothing to offer his family or his community, Raphael agrees to the deal. But as he begins to spend his salary, the man who had no reason to live rediscovers his joie de vivre.
As you'd expect, Depp is quite excellent in the leading role. His success behind the camera is somewhat more surprising. Indeed, Depp the director creates a wonderfully grimy environment - the film looks like a 1970s acid western - and gets strong performances from his cast. He even coaxes a good turn out of his close friend Brando, whose last great-ish performance this was. Mumbling portentous guff about the sanctity of life and the bravery of the man who looks into the abyss, Marlon's McCarthy comes on like a low-rent Colonel Kurtz. How sad that he didn't call it a day here but instead signed up for straight-to-video dud Free Money and Frank Oz's underwhelming The Score.
A film that allowed Depp to work with his brother DP and reminded the world what a good actor Frederic Forrest is, there's a lot to like about The Brave. So why the wide-spread disgust on its original release? Perhaps the answer's to be found in the film's tragic genesis. For before Depp came to The Brave, a script based on McDonald's book was penned by one Aziz Ghazal, a young writer who attained infamy by killing himself after trying to murder his ex-wife and three children. A story as horrible as Ghazal's is something anyone would want to forget. Perhaps it was for reminding the Hollywood community of a tragic moment from its recent past that the critics carpeted Depp. Either way, the actor has never stepped behind a camera again. Let's hope the fact 'Forbes' lists him as the world's best paid actor provides some consolation.