Thirty years ago, Jodie Foster earned her first Academy Award nomination, for “Taxi Driver,” with anti-hero Travis Bickle storming New York in psychotic rage over the street scum he encountered.
Now it’s Foster’s turn to prowl the city in a whirlwind of violence in the vigilante tale “The Brave One,” playing a woman who embarks on a bloody spree after recovering from an attack that killed her boyfriend and left her near death.
In a strange sense, the film combines aspects of Foster’s roles in “The Accused” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” which each earned her the best-actress Oscar.
In “The Accused,” Foster was a victim, gang-raped by men in a bar. In “The Silence of the Lambs,” she was young FBI agent Clarice Starling, pursuing a monstrous serial killer preying on women.
In “The Brave One,” directed by Neil Jordan, Foster is both victim and monster herself. After the attack, she turns her fear and emotional devastation outward, buying a gun initially to feel safe but using it to administer justice as judge, jury and executioner of other evildoers.
The film is a thinking-person’s take on vengeance thrillers such as Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish.”
“It amuses me to no end. I say to my agent, ‘I’m the one with the gun? When did that happen? Me? I’m like 5 feet 3,”’ Foster, 44, said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where “The Brave One” played in advance of its theatrical debut Friday.
While that aspect amuses Foster, there is nothing remotely humorous about “The Brave One,” a grim tale that raises provocative moral questions as viewers find themselves empathizing with a woman whose actions they may find repugnant. The film co-stars Terrence Howard as a police detective whose own unwavering moral code is knocked off course as he pursues Foster’s vigilante.
Though a far different story than “Taxi Driver,” “The Brave One” similarly reflects the New York and America of its time, the former a nation that cut and ran from Vietnam, the latter a country wounded by the destruction of the World Trade Center and living amid the war on terrorism, Foster said.
The New York of “Taxi Driver” was a place of crime and corruption through which Robert De Niro’s Bickle rampaged. The New York of “The Brave One” is a city that has undergone economic rebirth and become a safer place to live, yet which carries the hurt and anger of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“In the 1970s, New York and America were coming out of Vietnam having been terribly disappointed by who we were, having left that country in a mess and left ourselves in this terrible, complicated mess,” Foster said. “Travis Bickle’s mission is to look at what New York is and say, ‘I’m going to fix this. There’s got to be some way that I can fix this. We couldn’t fix it over there, but I’m going to fix it here.’
“Post 9/11 is such a different beast. It’s the safest big city in the world. There’s a cop on every corner. It’s beautiful and beautified. Times Square is like Disneyland. And why is it that we’re on Orange Alert? Why is it that we’re a quarter-inch away from this rage and fear that has no basis in reality? That’s kind of who America is right now. We are rediscovering that there’s part of our national psyche that is really angry.”
Foster was an ideal person to embody that anger, a performer with whom viewers could identify despite the character’s dark deeds, director Jordan said.
“She’s got this remarkable thing where she quite effortlessly holds your imagination,” Jordan said. “She puts herself in that place and without question, as a member of the audience, I am there with her. And I don’t know how she does it.”
Co-star Howard counts Foster among Hollywood’s greatest screen stars.
“She’s Marlene Dietrich, Glenn Close, she’s Marlon Brando, all of them combined,” Howard said. “Fifty years from now, the people who can say they worked with Jodie Foster and have that on their resume, I can see my grandkids looking at it and saying, ‘You worked with Jodie Foster?’ and them being amazed, like I marched with Martin. That’s what it was like for me.”
Though Foster has slowed down her career the last decade to raise her two sons, “The Brave One” comes amid a diverse mix of big and small films the actress has taken on in the last few years.
She starred in the thrillers “Panic Room” and “Flightplan” and took a juicy supporting role in last year’s bank-heist tale “Inside Man.” Fluent in French since childhood, Foster also took on a supporting role in the French-language romance “A Very Long Engagement.”
Foster is just finishing the family flick “Nim’s Island” and has been toiling for years to star in a film about Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker vilified after World War II for her propaganda pieces about Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany.
“I wish I was better at making these things happen fast. That particular project is really hard to get right,” Foster said. “It’s going to be an interesting, challenging experience to make the movie and to defend it. I think that’s what’s going to be fun about it, really, is the discussion about it, these big, moral questions.”
Starting her career at age 3 in Coppertone tanning-lotion commercials, Foster went on to appear in “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” and “Paper Moon” for television and earned a supporting-actress Oscar nomination as a child prostitute in “Taxi Driver.”
After her Oscar wins for “The Accused” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” Foster moved into directing with “Little Man Tate” and “Home for the Holidays.” Other directing projects have fallen through, including one starring Russell Crowe and another on which Foster had planned to direct “Taxi Driver” co-star De Niro.
“I will certainly direct again. I think it’s my biggest disappointment, that I haven’t directed more. But as a director, I know it means a year away from my kids, and it means an enormous level of commitment. It’s not something that I can take lightly,” Foster said. “Maybe someday I’ll take a big break from acting, and that’s probably when I’ll be directing more.”