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The Brave: Johnny Depp Directs Himself as an Indigenous Person Making a Snuff Film

The Brave is Johnny Depp’s first and only feature directorial venture, a box office bomb that seriously deserves a second look. The film stars Depp alongside his friend Marlon Brando, Marshall Bell, Elpida Carrillo, and Luis Guzmán, and is based on the harrowingly bleak novel by Gregory McDonald. Depp portrays Raphael, an Indigenous person of an unspecified tribe living in a condemned junkyard who seeks a last ditch effort to provide for his family. This opportunity is to star in a snuff film directed and financed by the mysterious Mr. McCarthy (Brando).

The Brave was released in 1997… sort of. It was shown at the Cannes International Film Festival and had a very small release in the country of France soon afterwards, but reviews were so scathing that Depp refused to release it in America. The film is nearly impossible to find on any streaming route and only available to purchase in DVD or Blu-ray in Region 2 (non-USA) format. There is no trace of this film on the mainstream platform.

A Prelude to Production of The Brave

The film’s production was seemingly cursed from the start in the early 1990s. Film school stockroom manager Aziz Ghazal (and co-writer of Zombie High) was attached to direct before Depp. However, in 1993, Ghazal murdered his daughter and wife before ending his own life, his body not found for a month. After the tragedy, the film was dropped by the original studio, then handed over before landing in front of Johnny Depp by producers.

This is by no means a microbudget independent film. The scale of the production was quite massive in that entire sets had to be built; according to a 1997 article by The Los Angeles Times, the large scale production’s set pieces were detrimental but crucial to the story:

Depp said he knew almost immediately that he would have to commit his own money to the project, and he made that decision in ‘a split second.’ In effect, Depp had to guarantee that he would pay for any costs over the film’s budget of about $5 million.

“‘I knew we’d go over $5 million,’” said Depp, even though he and Brando were paid scale for their work on the film. ‘This picture is bigger than people think. We had to build a huge garbage heap. . . 500 tons of junk is very expensive.”

In addition to committing a large amount of money ($2 million of his own finances) to the details, Depp also commits a decent amount of time (both his and the film’s runtime) to telling the story.

Breakdown of Johnny Depp’s The Brave

Coming in at just over two hours, the film spends most of its time with Raphael and his family in their impoverished environment. While the driving force of the film is the fact that this character is to be tortured and killed in a snuff film for the sum of $50,000, it is never seen (unlike in the internationally banned A Serbian Film, which has a surprisingly similar plot). The movie isn’t exploitive in showing extended scenes of awful violence; instead, the plot point is merely the overarching doom that creeps up on this character as the clock ticks on his life with his family.

The theme of this film is sacrifice, and Raphael is consistently depicted as a Christlike figure despite his many flaws. During an intimate and philosophical exchange between Raphael and McCarthy, the two discuss the meaning of death. The conversation uses death in a more comforting way, with Brando’s character stating that death is the end of a cycle that mirrors birth. It is a very beautifully written exchange in a screenplay actually written by Johnny and his brother D.P. Depp.

In this conversation lies one of the most important pieces of dialogue in the entire film. Spoken eloquently by McCarthy:

As the film is entitled The Brave, most of the runtime is dedicated to Raphael’s trials and tribulations leading towards death. However, it could be argued that he is not the only one the title refers to. His son Frankie (Cody Lightning, of the actual Cree tribe) experiences a coming of age moment when he must defend his home and mother from Luis Guzmán’s character, who is out for revenge. Raphael bestows Frankie with the title of “brave” and hands over his bandana to the boy who he states has become a man.

The Tragedy and Meaning of The Brave

However, in the final moments of the film, we see Raphael lurking closer and closer to the building in which he is to die. It is implied that he will not survive, but we never see the actual snuff film be made. It is a depressing conclusion to the film, with a dramatic and emotional score tugging at the heartstrings.

In addition, the agreement Raphael and McCarthy make for compensation is merely verbal and there is no moment where we see a contract be signed for the money. That payment is said to go to Raphael’s family, who we never see receive a single dollar. What we do see is their junkyard home being destroyed by the government. The film ends on a sour and depressing note that leaves audiences with the deep void for closure, but we will never get it. It’s an uncompromising, painful film, one Depp refused to alter even if it cost him $2 million. As The Los Angeles Times writes:

At that time, Depp could have found a U.S. distributor willing to finance any overages on the film, but that would have meant giving up control. “I didn’t want to give up U.S. distribution [because a U.S. distributor] would badger me beyond belief.”

Response to the Johnny Depp Movie

The film received a mixture of divisive reviews after its release at Cannes. The longer runtime for such a depressing movie and commitment to character development seemed to be the topic of discussion, and caused some polarization for the film. In the aforementioned LA Times article, it is noted how the response connected with Depp:

Depp recognizes that a film like ‘The Brave,’ which won’t be backed by a large advertising budget, is dependent on positive reviews. But he says, “I couldn’t care less [about the reviews]. . . . I didn’t make this film to entertain people. I’m not an entertainer. . . . I hope people really love it or really hate it.”

There was also some negative reaction to Depp casting himself as an indigenous person (ironically, Depp would play the Indigenous character Tonto later in his career and receive similar backlash, despite being adopted as an honorary member of a Comanche family). Regardless of the reviews, Depp made the film he wanted to make. He was able to ascertain creative control and had the final cut. The film is truest to his vision and there is no denying the emotional response The Brave had on audiences. After 25 years, it is a hidden gem within Depp’s career and should be experienced by Depp fans.

A Directorial Future for Johnny Depp

The liberating results of the infamous Depp vs. Heard trial for Depp has seemingly opened new doors for the actor. According to Vanity Fair, Depp is slated to star as King Louis XV in a new French film entitled La Favorite. The production is set to begin this summer and will be released in French theaters and on Netflix exclusively in their territory. However, with a new and exciting comeback on the horizon, this begs the question of why Depp has never helmed a feature since The Brave.

A fresh start and new opportunities would be great to see for the actor. Films in which he starred over the past few years have seen divided reviews. However, what would a directorial resurgence for Depp look like in this day in age? The answer is as mysterious as the question alone.

The Brave showcased Depp’s commitment to telling a fleshed out story with raw emotion and relatable characters. It is solely his vision which is compiled with large scale production values. The film showed that he has an eye in front and behind the camera, and the way he uses abstract imagery and lets his camera linger on sad, desolate moments creates a haunting atmosphere in The Brave. There are no upcoming directorial projects for Depp in the distant future, but helming a film would give Depp the opportunity to showcase a part of himself modern audiences have never seen before. Directing would give Depp a freedom he hasn’t had onscreen in a while. Only time will tell what his film resurgence will bring to the world of cinema.

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