If Harry Brown is to be believed, then life on the British housing estates large blocks, towers and even suburbs that were built from the 1950s onwards as housing units for low income people is something that approaches a near total anarchy that is as bad as some of the big US cities like Detroit and Baltimore. The casual violence, vandalism and drug use that we see is alarming none more so than the disturbing opening sequence shot via handheld camcorder where youths joy riding on a motorcycle start randomly shooting at and then kill a mother pushing a child in a stroller. Even the police seem powerless to do much and are at one point driven back by rioting residents of the estate throwing stones and Molotov cocktails. The actors playing the street youths have been made up and dressed to seem as filthy and drug-addled as possible the arrested youth gang are allowed to play with a maximum degree of venomous nastiness and harsh anti-authoritarianism during the interrogation scenes, while Michael Caines venture into the drug den is lit and set dressed to seem like a venture into a Hellish inferno. [Harry Brown makes interesting contrast to Attack the Block (2011), which was set on a near-identical British housing estate and has many similarities but contrarily saw its petty criminal youth as redeemable heroes in the frontline against an alien invasion].
Like almost all other vigilante films, Harry Brown is a naked exposure of urban fears. Death Wish was fired up by the feelings of 1970s middle-classes that urban centres having become lawless and overridden by crime and many of its sequels and successors stridently take up the notion that a red-blooded American man is duty bound to take up arms and defend his home and family; while there have been female vigilante films such as Thelma and Louise (1991), Dirty Weekend (1992), Baise-Moi (2000) and Enough (2002) that deal with abused women standing up for themselves. Both Gran Torino and Harry Brown make direct appeals to the older generation in seeing they are at fear of the growing lawlessness, disrespect and contempt displayed by todays youth to such extent that the youths are only regarded as worthy of extermination. These vigilante films centre around common plot arcs the murder of a friend or member(s) of the protagonists family by petty criminals in acts of senseless violence; the feeling that crime in the modern world has gotten out of control or that society has become diseased; that the law is ineffectual in trying to provide adequate justice; the belief that the only reasonable closure the protagonist can affect is in personally taking up arms against the crimes; the unofficial tolerance of the police who regard the vigilante as doing something they wish they themselves were sanctioned to do.
With the exception of the avenging woman film Ms 45/Angel of Vengeance (1981), the only one of these films to even suggest that its protagonist might be mentally disturbed was Taxi Driver (1976), although even that seemed to regard the end resolution as ambiguously heroic. You cannot help but think there is something irresponsible to these films in pandering to fears about crime and lawlessness and advocating taking the law into ones own hands. In real life, vigilantes (who almost always act as groups rather than individuals) have a tendency to be unconcerned about small details such as proof of an accuseds guilt, while the issue of the rights being wronged seems more about mob rule and subjective opinion, if not prejudices, than any universal sense of wrongs being righted. If you have any doubt about this, simply note that by any definition of vigilantism, you have to include groups like the KKK and the IRA.
Harry Brown emerges as one of the better among the recent spate of vigilante films. It never does anything as radical as reinventing the cliches and plot arcs of the vigilante film, it just writes them well. It is violent and brutal, although not with the visceral rawness of Death Sentence the tone of Daniel Barbers direction is muted, quiet and not over-dramatised. Yet at the same time we do not have the vigilante film watered down to the tepid liberalism of something like The Brave One. Michael Caine is perfectly cast, bringing the respectable legacy of his acting career to bear on the part. All others play well up against him, with there being a strong and coolly intelligent performance from Emily Mortimer as the police detective.
Daniel Barber next went on to make The Keeping Room (2014).