Jodie Foster, Feminist Avenger

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Abbot Genser / Warner Bros.

Jodie Foster stars in The Brave One.

They're so intelligent, caring, achieving, in love, this couple could be on the cover of New York magazine as a symbol of what makes America's largest city work. David Kirmani (Lost's Naveen Andrews) is a physician, Erica Bain (Jodie Foster) a public-radio spieler who paints sound portraits of her town, now and in its glorious past. She hearts New York.

From the ads and promos for director Neil Jordan's The Brave One, which played at the Toronto International Film Festival before opening in theaters Friday, you can guess that this rosy notion of the city is doomed. So is David, since he simply doesn't fit the profile of a Jodie Foster movie. Foster doesn't do straightforward love stories; indeed, she may be the only actress in Hollywood history who has built a two-decade star career without ever playing a traditional romantic lead. (Sommersby was about as close as she got.) It's no surprise that, within the film's first 15 minutes, David is killed as he and Erica walk their dog in Central Park. He's pounded into mulch by three thugs (of carefully indeterminate race), one of whom records the assaults on his picture phone. Erica is also beaten but survives.

The attacks leave Erica battered and bereft. She sits in her apartment listening to David speak comfortingly, chillingly, on her voice mail. Her home is a jail, but outside — the city whose byways it has been her job and passion to celebrate — is a charnel house she fears to enter. When Erica forces herself to go out, to the police station, the law ignores her pleas to investigate the murder.

Now The Brave One's plot (confected by Roderick and Bruce Taylor and Cynthia Mort) cranks up the coincidences; and the viewer starts playing a game that's dangerous for any adult thriller: What Are the Odds? Told she must wait a month to buy a gun, Erica just happens to meet a guy who'll sell her a hot 9mm. pistol for $1,000 in cash, which she just happens to be carrying. (What are the odds?) Browsing in a convenience store, she Just Happens to witness an armed robbery; she kills the perp with the gun she JUST HAPPENS to be carrying. (What Are the Odds?) Next she's riding the subway, where she J.H. to see two black dudes harassing the riders. They approach her, and she blows them away. (W.A.T.O.?)

I've lived in New York for 42 years, and as I watch the movie I'm thinking that this New York is both foreign — Baghdad without the car bombs — and familiar. Then it dawns on me: Erica, and the movie, have got caught in a time machine. Before the murder she lived in New York, 2007; after, she's in New York 1974, when the city was near bankruptcy, subways were blighted by graffiti, the murder rate had more than doubled in eight years and the mood of the people was grim and guarded. They might have cheered a citizen-vigilante.

In 1974, Hollywood gave them one: the architect played by Charles Bronson in Death Wish. After his wife is murdered and his daughter raped, he is given a gun and, when attacked, kills the assailant, then stalks the city looking for muggers to punish. Reflecting and exploiting urban anxieties, the movie was panned by critics who found it reprehensible — "Poisonous incitement to do-it-yourself law enforcement," Variety proclaimed — and wildly garish. "This doesn't look like 1974," Roger Ebert wrote of Death Wish at the time, "but like one of those bloody future cities in science-fiction novels about anarchy in the twenty-first century."

Now we're in that century; New York's murder rate has fallen back to 1966 levels; and we have a movie that wants to attach the old dread to a very livable town. The Brave One makes urban paranoia a form of nostalgia. A caller to Erica's radio shows voices that sentiment. "I think it's good for New York," he says of the mystery killer's exploits. "This place was turning into Disneyland." Like the Bronson character, Erica has become a hero to edgy New Yorkers — because she kills people who deserve to die. Or, rather, she takes the role of the state: judge, jury and executioner.

Since the scenario is ludicrous or pernicious on its face, we must look for metaphors. For example: losing the one person you loved surely would turn your world inside out, and make the outside one suddenly threatening rather than welcoming. Is Erica's revenge scenario a fever dream of bereavement — a post-death wish? Is it a theoretical argument that the sensible side of Erica is having with her angry side? "You look at the person you once were, walking down that street," she says on the radio, "and you wonder: Will you ever be her again?" The question is at the heart of a paradoxical movie that tries to question rough justice even as it celebrates it.

Needing to kill, but hoping to be caught, Erica waves clues about her crimes in the face of a sympathetic detective (Terrence Howard). He's good at his job, but she's better: with a little legwork, she tracks down her husband's killers. Whether or not Erica wants revenge, the genre does, and the movie must oblige, in a climax that fatally ups the implausibility quotient. The movie finally buys the old right-wing argument that a conservative is just a liberal who's been mugged.

The film put me in mind of another incident from the '70s. I worked for a woman whose 18-year-old daughter was bicycling through Central Park when a 15-year-old boy stopped her, stole her bike and killed her with a tire iron. The grieving mother's response to this atrocity was to write a letter to the Times asking for the murderer not to be taken down by vigilantes or executed by the state, but treated with justice and mercy. It probably wouldn't make a very good movie, but that woman was heroic. She knew that if wrongful violence begets righteous violence, we all become criminals. She was the brave one.