deciphering the twilit puzzle of
the allegorical Johnny Depp film, THE BRAVE (1997)
by Gary W. Wright
Having played a prominent role in some of the most quirky and memorable films of the dread allegorical Zone Wars since his almost ironically unmemorable appearance as Glen Lantz in the twilit and allegorical Wes Craven film, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984), one could not help but wonder if John Christopher ‘Johnny’ Depp II had an equally twilit and allegorical intent in mind when he co-wrote, directed and starred in THE BRAVE (1997), a film that was based on the equally twilit and allegorical novel, The Brave (1991), by Gregory MacDonald and that had a surprisingly understated, wistful, pensive and indigenous inflected soundtrack by Iggy Pop, who worked with Depp on the twilit and allegorical Jim Jarmusch film, DEAD MAN (1995) and also had a cameo as a partygoer in THE BRAVE.
‘No, I am not afraid to die.’
A distinct possibility, for the film began with a poor young native man, Raphael-his omnipresent headband anticipating a pirate of the Caribbean to come, and played by Depp-bussing into town from his Hollywood cadenced and garbage dump straddling squatter community of Morgantown on a bus with the ominous license of 2KIN132-a license that evoked the July 23 TZ disaster. In town, Raphael immediately wandered off the main drag and to a battered old brick building on a back street. After climbing a long stairway inside, Raphael found a room with two strange characters and a flickering fluorescent light bulb straight out of the allegorical moving paintings and telefilms of David Lynch like ERASERHEAD (1977), BLUE VELVET (1986) and TWIN PEAKS (1990-1), implying that Depp was addressing Lynch in THE BRAVE. Indeed, the name of Raphael evoked the Renaissance painter, reminding us that Lynch started off as a painter before turning to dreamy and surreal moving paintings. The name of Raphael also evoked the name of Raffaella De Laurentiis, producer of the twilit and allegorical Lynch film, DUNE (1984), reaffirming the possible Lynch addressing intent of THE BRAVE.
Curiously, after a strange job interview with laconic Larry-played by Marshall Bell-an implicit interest in Lynch waned when Lar led Raphael to a freight elevator. After a short ride up, Larry then led Raphael through a dark and sinister brick labyrinth to a room with what appeared to be an old electric chair mounted on a platform in the centre. Soon Larry left, and as he locked Raphael inside the room in rolled a wheelchair with the tragicomic figure of McCarthy-a chubby character who vaguely evoked Alfred Hitchcock and Kenneth McMillan’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in DUNE, and played by Marlon Brando. After playing a few wistful notes on a harmonica, McCarthy then spoke, sometimes sadly and regretfully, perhaps the most disturbing and rambling monologue in the dread allegorical Zone Wars, a malignant monologue that reminded us that there had always been speculation that the TZ disaster was a case of snuff film disguised as a ‘snuffo’ accident:
…what we have here is a little bit of shadowplay…
tell me, are you afraid to die?...No, I’m not afraid
to die…I regard death as now a sort of necessarily a
metamorphosis…perhaps the more painful the death
the more…well, it’s a kind of refinement…a sort of
transfiguration, a completion of a equation…watching
a painful death can be a great inspiration for those
who-who are not dying, so that they can see how
brave we can be when it is time to go. It is the final
measure of bravery to stand up to death in exquisite
anguish…its seems to me now that the closer that one
can come to death in life, makes the passage into death
all the more easy. And it also leaves behind the greatest
gift that anyone can give another, which is the courage
to face death.
The implicit snuff film implications of this monologue were increased by the fact that Brando was a director himself, having stepped in to direct the allegorical film, ONE-EYED JACKS (1961), after Stanley Kubrick left the project.
Significantly, after listening to this soliloquy, Raphael accepted fifty thousand dollars to be killed in one week’s time by Baron McCarthy. Raphael then bussed back to the poor and depressed squatter shanty town of Morgantown, which we discovered to be located near desert vistas that evoked DUNE. We also discovered that Raphael was so depressed about being unable to find a job after being released from prison, that the indigenous battler decided to literally sacrifice himself so that others would live in ironic Christian fashion so that the money would help his struggling family leave their hard scrabble existence. We also found the depressed denizens of Morgantown sifted through the garbage dump next door, struggling to find something of value. This reminded us of the fitting Hollywood cadence of Morgantown, as Hollywood also sifted through novels, plays, television shows, comic books and arcade games in an equally frantic attempt to transform them into Oscar gold like cinematic alchemists.
Here in Morgantown, we also met Raphael’s wife, Rita, son, Frankie and daughter, Marta-his wife and daughter both having an ‘art’ hidden in their names, and played by Elpidia Carrillo, Cody Lightning and Nicole Mancera, respectively. Significantly, Frankie and Marta reminded us that the head Evildoer in BLUE VELVET was Frank Booth-played by Dennis Hopper-and that Lynch had a younger sister named Martha, reaffirming the implicit Lynch addressing intent of THE BRAVE. If so, the fact that Raphael, after a depressing week in Morgantown that culminated with him killing Luis for attacking Rita, bussed back into town to fulfill his promise of being killed on film by McCarthy and Larry in one week’s time implied the fear of Depp that Lynch would be slaughtered by dismissive reviews when he returned to the Temple Theatre that year with his twilit and allegorical film, LOST HIGHWAY (1997). Or did it? For the film ended with Raphael back in the battered brick building in town riding the freight elevator up to his destiny all alone, suggesting that he had killed Larry, as well, and was now going to kill Baron McCarthy, implying the hope of Depp that Lynch would return to form in 1997 with LOST HIGHWAY. Leaving audiences with a twilit mystery, in the end, from the land of freedom loving film art and the home of THE BRAVE.
In fact, the implicitly twilit theme of THE BRAVE was affirmed by the name of McCarthy, for his surname evoked that of Kevin McCarthy, an original Twilight Zone television series actor who also appeared as Uncle Walt in ‘It’s A Good Life’, the Joe Dante directed episode three of the ill fated TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE. The twilit theme of THE BRAVE was implicitly reaffirmed by the fact Frankie’s name recalled Frank Marshall, the producer of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE who helped Landis find, hire and illegally use child extras Renee Chen and Myca Le after hours on the deadly Vietnamese village set of the John Landis episode of the film. McCarthy’s weird enforcer, Larry, implicitly linked the film openly to TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, as the name of his character evoked Doug McGrath’s Larry, a character that sat opposite from Morrow’s disgruntled Bill Connor in the after work bar scene that began the Landis episode. All of which implicitly affirmed that indeed was THE BRAVE a case of twilit and mysterious bravery.