Directed by David Miller
It’s not immediately clear in what time period Lonely Are the Brave is set. It’s a black and white film that opens with Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas), a ranch hand, as the image of an ideal cowboy. He admires the open land of the wide open west, alone except for the company of his trusted horse. Lying on his back he observes three planes passing overheard, a jarring image that lets you know this is a man out of time.
Jack insists on living as people did decades previously. He roams around with his horse and seems to content to live a life of isolation. It’s as if he just walked out of a John Wayne movie and struggles to adapt to modern life.
There’s a lot of pride in that struggle. Jack might not even realize his way of life is in trouble, but it’s painfully obvious as he strains to help guide his horse across a busy freeway. No matter the pressure around him, Jack will never give in. He proudly tells a cop that he has no identification because he doesn’t need it. “I know who I am.”
Jack meets that cop after finding himself purposefully drawn into a bar fight, hoping to land himself in jail. That’s because Jack’s friend Paul (Michael Kane), is in jail, and Jack is confident he can break him out. When the cop decides to let Jack go, he takes a swing at another cop, doing whatever he can to get himself thrown behind bars.
To Jack, everything is kind of a joke. He knows the way the world works and is content to ignore it, like a light nuisance. In jail he finds Paul and quickly makes an enemy out of a ruthless prison guard, eventually giving in pretty willingly to the beatings he knows will follow.
That night Jack shows Paul the small saws he snuck in with him, and he tells them how they’re going to escape. This isn’t a movie about a drawn out escape because hours later they are able to bend the bars and sneak out. The only problem is that Paul doesn’t want to go, keen on serving out his sentence as penance and hoping to lead a good example for his kids.
Jack escapes, and the rest of the story concerns his attempt to escape on horseback, crossing the border into Mexico. His foe in this is Sheriff Morey Johnson (Walter Mathieu), a calm fellow whose quiet confidence makes him immensely likable. He’s self-assured and amused by the people around him, much in the same way as Jack Burns.
Jack and Morey are kindred spirits, in a way. It’s a character dynamic you’ll find in plenty of other crime movies in which the cop and the criminal fight through a battle of wits. You see it in Michael Mann’s Heat with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and 2016’s Hell or High Water, another modern western involving a bank robber and a soon to retire sheriff.
I guess this kind of character relationship, with two likable characters on opposite sides of the law, is meant to blur the lines between good and bad. We’re rooting for Jack as he attempts his escape, but we’re given plenty of screen time with Morey on his own, allowing us to get to know and empathize with him.
The “brave,” alluded to in the title might as well refer to Morey as well as Jack. This is a crime story which doesn’t demonize either side, though it does give us plenty of reason to hate the abusive prison guard who gets his comeuppance in the end.
Both Morey and Jack are ‘lonely’ to some degree. Jack roams the land alone, and Morey, when we see him, is an intelligent cop surrounded by hapless ones. He has trouble working with the men around him, and he seems mentally exhausted from having to explain every step of the law to them. They are each intelligent characters disappointed with what they see surrounding them.
Jack eventually escapes the growing police force and rides away on his trusty horse, headed for the border. He has won, it seems, until we see him attempt to cross another freeway, this one slick during a rainy night. Based on the previous tumultuous attempt to cross the road, we know this one might end in disaster. We revisit a truck driver, unconnected from the plot, whom we’ve been introduced to earlier in the film. He struggles to see out the window and then veers off the road after striking Jack and his horse.
When the driver comes to check on Jack, he is clinging to life, shaken and haunted and bloodied on the ground. The cops arrive, including Morey, and Jack winces as the cop puts his horse out of its misery. Another officer asks Morey if this is the man he’s looking for, and Morey says he can’t say because he has never seen him up close before.
My first thought was that Morey wanted to let Jack go, an act of kindness, because he admires the man. The other possibility is that Morey genuinely doesn’t recognize the man, blinded by something in his mind which, because of how he identifies with the man, might prevent him from sending him to jail, as if sentencing this man might mean sentencing himself.
The movie ends with a shot of Jack’s soaked cowboy hat lying in the middle of the road.
Lonely Are the Brave reminds me of 1984’s Paris, Texas. Both films, set in the dry southwest, introduce us to men who are out of time and out of place. They don’t belong in this world, is the ultimate point, though the end of Brave is much more abrupt than in Paris, Texas.
This is a movie that admired Jack Burns but nonetheless takes him down in the end, insisting that this type of person and lifestyle isn’t plausible in the increasingly modern world. Jack is some kind of American hero (he’s also Kirk Douglas), and his eventual doom feels much more ominous than it would for the doom of any other character. Jack represents a way of life, and the movie goes out of its way to show just how skilled, empathetic and cunning he is. He’s a survivor who cares for those around him. He’s violent, but he’s not quick to violence, instead only using it as a form of self-defense, and he’s a romantic, careful to take in and appreciate the natural world which is increasingly made insignificant by the modern culture. All he wants is to roam, and the thing that does him in is a common freeway.
Maybe the character of the Sheriff is simply meant to show how a character like Jack could adapt to the new world. The Sheriff is less stubborn but just as much an idealist as Jack. He’s similarly frustrated with what we sees, but he’s not a fool. The Sheriff, in what was then modern day, is what Jack would have been decades before. If one is holding on to what was, the Sheriff is reluctantly accepting what is.
At the same time, the Sheriff doesn’t seem happy. The only moment in which we really see him rejoicing in the moment is when he admires an unseen dog outside his office window. This at least draws a line between him and Jack, both of whom demonstrate empathy for an animal, a shortcut to making us like them.
There’s a lot more at play here that I might not have caught onto. The focus at first seems to be on the relationship between Jack and Paul as well as Paul’s wife, Jerry, to whom Jack himself might have had a romantic relationship. It’s a kind of love triangle, but once Paul refuses to escape prison with Jack, that part of the story is over. Brave begins as a crime caper and ends as a simple story of survival. Jack is at first fighting for his friend, but as the story becomes simplified, he seems to be fighting for so much more, and his fate becomes much more symbolic.
I guess another way of putting this is that the more complex, detailed and nuanced a story, the more specific it is. We learn about Jack and Jerry and Paul, and we’re told that this is a story about this one man, Jack. But as that plot fades away, so does that nuance. We still love Jack and root for him, but he matters less as a character and much more as a symbol of something bigger. At the start he is Jack, but by the end he is the American Cowboy. By simplifying the story and the character, Jack becomes much more loaded and begins to represent a lot more. It’s why so many of the simplest stories are the most grand.
Up Next: Darkest Hour (2017), The Stranger (1946), Clear History (2013)