An Exercise in Vigilantism

Harry Brown is an interesting movie for me to write about. A vigilante film set on a Council Estate in South London, the film has all the ingredients I love in a movie. The cinematography is some of the best I’ve seen this year. The shifts between rapid fire frenetic chaos and the stasis of social realism are truly visually stunning. The acting is also superb. Michael Caine plays a retired public servant and former Royal Marine, and he completely embraces his role, bringing the character Harry Brown to life in a way that is enormously, humanly real. The supporting role of Sean Harris as drug and gun dealer Stretch is off the planet in the power of its delivery. The movie combines operatic violence with social realism ways that I absolutely love in a film. The sound editing and photography are tough to match. The visuals and acting are utterly brilliant, yet I cannot love this movie. As I watched the movie progress and began to understand its ideological position, my distaste for its politics overrode my love for its aesthetics. In the end, even though Harry Brown is one hell of an artfully made film, its overt Right Wing politics were too much for me to stomach. Ultimately, the movie uses its social setting and the vigilante genre as a Propaganda Delivery System that promotes the “old order.” It advocates for guns and intolerance over Left Wing populism and economic reform to solve the plight of unemployment and poverty that plagues England.

At first, I was blown away by the stunning shots of the vast Council Estate in South London. Whether seen in the bleached daylight as towering concrete filing cabinets for human beings, or seen at night in a glowing sea of dark foreboding danger, the Estate is shown in spectacular poverty that emphasizes the alienation and desperation of these housing developments. However, whatever potential for socio-political critique these stunning shots have is thrown down the drain once the movie’s politics surface.  Even though the movie dabbles in social realism, the vision it presents is horribly skewed to the Right and does not have the depth it needs to be truly representative of the reality in South London. Yes, the scenes at the Council Estate are profoundly effective in delivering a sense of the mass squalor and a sea of bleakness. The movie provides numerous shots of the monumentally vast terrain of the Council Estate which seen in their seemingly endless mass is like witnessing a cage-system for humans. But as brutally real as the vision may seem on the surface, it is presented to us in extremely binary terms. This is a movie about Right and wrong. You have the no-nonsense working class hero Harry Brown on one side, and a bunch of depraved young people on the other. Harry Brown, the stoic ex-Royal Marine who fought in Northern Ireland, is pitted against the violent, drug-using youth who are portrayed as rabid heartless animals (hence the sense of the vision of the Estate as cages) and who represent the destruction of moral decency.

Michael Caine’s portrayal of Harry Brown is enormously effective. Initially I was completed seduced by his performance. He draws the audience in so closely to his complex character. We feel his alienation, his emotions, his conflict, and a sense of tight control that only emphasizes the ripple of a volatile underside to his character. We watch him sleep, eat, talk, and cry. The camera hones in on his face in full close-up, so we are physically drawn into his body, and we can feel every inch of his character. We have no choice but to identify with him, but this identification serves the movie’s ideological agenda. By asking us to identify with him, the movie attempts to legitimize Harry Brown’s actions in which he pulls out his ex-Marine torture and murder tactics to single-handedly wipe out the youth who plague the Council Estate. Harry, with his cache of guns and knives, becomes the “new law” who reinstates order amid the lawless urban squalor which the impotent police (who aren’t allowed to carry guns) cannot control.  At its heart, the movie is a Pro-Gun, Anti-Youth and, ultimately, anti-diversity vehicle that could seems like propaganda to promote the British government’s latest push to allow the police to carry guns so they can more effectively prepared to fight “terrorism”.

The terrorists who need to be fought in this movie are disenfranchised youth. The kids are not alright in Harry Brown. Not one single young person in this movie possesses a redeemable quality, and as such the movie makes it completely acceptable for Harry Brown to step into the picture and open fire on them. Unlike movies such as This Is England which show the complexity of class, race and economics within skinhead and violent youth culture in London, Harry Brown shows youth as completely one-dimensional. Young people get high, deal drugs, rob, steal, rape and murder. Given the picture that Harry Brown delivers, one would think that the Council Estate has simply been usurped by a team of violent wild youth who are determined to destroy any remaining semblance of the “honorable” working class. What the movie fails to show is that it is the legacy of the conservative economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and global capitalism, which outsourced labor class jobs to China and other countries, that gutted the working class from the Council Estate. At one point, Council Estates provided housing for the working class (people like Harry Brown), but with the decimation of labor unions and working class jobs, the Estates have now become holding containers for the jobless and hopeless where young people feel like they have no options for the future other than crime. But providing any kind of economic depth to this movie would deviate from its Us-Against-Them message. It doesn’t matter what caused the problem. What matters is that a man like Harry Brown can be a hero by using the very tactics that he used in Northern Ireland to torture and murder the kids who are like oozing sores on the surface of his orderly and honorable life.

Interestingly, the film’s aesthetics (which are very well executed) are the key to delivering its ideological position. The movie asks the audience to identify with Harry while seeing the youth as rabid animals who should be destroyed. Stylistically the movie goes back and forth between the orderly world of Harry Brown (steady focused camera in a tidy controlled environment with all the mise-en-scène of the solidly honorable working class) and the drug-fueled world of the kids (frenetic hand-held rapid cuts in an environment littered with graffiti, needles, alcohol and filth). The movie opens in a chaotic whirl of Youth Gone Mad as a group of young people take hits off a crack pipe, race through the streets of London and shoot down a mother walking her child in the park. The scene ends with the kids crashing their motorcycle and their heads split open like watermelons on the pavement. The camera spins,cuts,turns and whips us through this scene as if we are being churned through the garbage disposal of these kids’ heads. It is a horrific and brutal opening that provides no explanation — just drugs, chaos, and violence. The movie cuts from that scene to the sleeping body of Harry Brown. He lies in his perfectly tidy bed, the sheets crisp and clean, not a mark of dirt on the walls. The camera then follows Harry through his flawless morning routine, focusing on each freshly polished shoe as he slips them on his feet, the toast he puts in the toaster, the orderly buttering of his toast, the methodic sweeping of crumbs from the table, the washing of the plate and placing it in the perfectly stacked dish rack. We see Harry in this environment, and we understand that he represents order to compensate for the chaos we just witnessed.

The movie plays on this split throughout, continuously asking us to see Harry Brown as a stoic lonely man trying to make good in a world gone wrong. When he and his friend Leonard meet in the local pub, the two worlds collide. Len and Harry try to focus on a game of chess (the ultimate exercise in militaristic order) while a slimy, filthy, tooth-decayed and tattooed hoodlum deals drugs from the bar. Len talks to Harry about the corruption of their world — that drugs, guns, needles, and “terrorist” youth have made it a threatening place — and that Harry and Len need to do something about it. And so the tale unfolds. We witness the sorrow and loneliness of the dying working class (Harry and Leonard) pitted against the anarchy and destruction of the disenfranchised youth with nary a mention of the political economy that set-up such a division in the first place. Harry’s wife dies, and we feel his sadness profoundly. Then Len is murdered by the fucked-up kids, and Harry’s tomb of loneliness is sealed. We see Harry sitting alone in his apartment, everything around him placed in a perfect semblance of order – the remote control on the coffee table, the chess board at the window, the photo of his dead wife on the end table. The police are impotent to help with their policies, interrogations and plans because they have no guns to carry them through. Harry is alone. He has lost his wife and his only friend. He walks from the ordered world of his apartment to the gutted apartment of his dead friend Len. The apartment is mess. Len’s things are smashed and burned. Graffiti covers every inch of the walls while garbage and drug paraphernalia litter the floor.  Harry stands in the ruins of his working class life, looks out the window, and watches the horrid wild youth at play with their violent drug-fueled games down below. What is a man to do?

What Harry does is arm himself against the “terrorist” forces.  He enters the Lair of the Beast Stretch to buy guns. With its nightmarish throbbing music punctuating the horror, this is the kind of scene that I would normally love in a movie, but I couldn’t love it here, not with its underlying fascist-leaning sentiment. In a scene that is completely over-the-top, Harry visits Stretch (The Evil Empire of Drugs) to buy some guns. Stretch and his sidekick are filmed as if they are poisonous animals. Stretch literally looks like a diseased viper, and his friend looks like a rabid hyena. Harry enters the apartment which looks more like a filthy cage than any kind of place humans would inhabit. To add to the animalistic feel, Stretch leads Harry through a jungle of marijuana plants growing in a thick green forest and fed by giant air vents and hanging fluorescent lights. From there Harry enters the back room where a girl lies puking on herself in an overdose on the sofa while a video of Stretch fucking another stoned girl plays on a big screen on the wall. Welcome do Depravity Central. Sean Harris’s performance as Stretch is utterly brilliant in this scene. Never have I witnessed such a completely fucked-up villain. His entire body writhes and twitches with the sick poison that is his soul as he injects his leg with dope. His lizard eyes alternate between rolling into his skull, mockingly laughing at his over-dosing “girlfriend”, and goading Harry. Hell, he even generously offers Harry a chance to fuck the vomiting girl. Not an attractive sight by any measure, so when Harry pulls his first “Dirty Harry” and blows the brains out of Stretch and his rabid sidekick, we have no sympathy for those vermin. The world is better off without them, right? Besides, Harry heroically saves the puking overdosing girl. We can’t help but sympathize with this working class hero.

And this really is the only message that the movie delivers. For all its brilliant aesthetic execution, its impeccable cinematography, and powerful acting performances, the whole thing is just a shallow excuse to take up arms and rid the world of the terror of drugs. It’s like a Pro-Gun, War-On-Drugs movie where disenfranchised youth are portrayed as a bunch of wild animals. When the police eventually do step in and raid the Council Estate, we are asked not only to take the side of the police by literally being placed behind their shields, but also to see the kids as a bunch of wild out-of-control animals. Literally looking through the eyes of the law, what we see is the complete deterioration of order as the youth of the Estate rise up like a bunch of viciously attacking animals and pummel the police with Moltov cocktails and no end of homemade bombs. They destroy cars, light things on fire, and represent the absolute destruction of morality. The scene is filmed to emphasize the fact that the police do not have guns but are relying only on their shields and batons to try to maintain order. We peer over the edge of a wall of shields and look at the kids as if the animals at the zoo are rioting. If only the police had guns, imagine how much more effective they would be in containing the animals?

In the meantime, Harry does have a gun. In a completely brutal scene in the pub, he manages to take down the bad guys and save the day. In the final scene, the order of the “silent majority” has been reinstated. This Nixon-ism is literally used at the end of the movie and eliminates any doubt I may have had about the movie’s political stance. Harry Brown walks past the underpass that the problem youth once occupied. Now that Harry has successfully killed off the pariah of the Council Estate, the graffiti has been washed clean, and the underpass has been painted with a crisp clean coat of white paint. Yes, order and whiteness have been reinstated. I almost vomited at this point because I was so sickened by the movie’s overt Right Wing politics.
This isn’t to say that Harry Brown is not interesting to think about. One of the things that it does is ask for the sympathy of the Old Order audience via the Michael Caine character, but then the film’s extremely graphic violence and disturbing drug content alienate the very audience it lures into its web. But all this alientation does is enforce the “need” to eradicate the elements that are disturbing. Thank goodness Harry Brown exists so that the Old Order can clean house, and we won’t need to witness such abominable acts in the future. Speaking of abominable acts, what could be more abominable than the former Royal Marine Harry using the same tactics he used to torture soldiers in Northern Ireland to torture a fucked-up kid who has been brutalized and molested all his life? The scene where Harry tortures Marky is profoundly brutal. We feel every punch and drop of blood that is spilled, yet in the end, Harry’s acts are seen as excusable because the torture allows Harry get the information he needs to clean the Estate of the dirt that plagues it.

It should be noted, as I mentioned, that we need Harry to clean up the dirt because the police are unable to be effective since they only possess policies and not guns. Speaking of the police, one character who provides a glimpse of depth and sympathy is Emily Mortimer’s Detective Alice Frampton. Indeed, Detective Framptom suspects Harry of murder, but when she states her suspicion to her superior, the police captain penalizes her for suggesting that a vigilante could do their job for them. We get a sense that Emily is from the Council Estate which is why she wants to help clean it up. But Emily’s commitment to reasonable and lawful solutions to crime prove to be untenable. She ends up needing Harry to save her as much as the Council Estate needs Harry to save it from the plague of violent youth. In this movie, order can only be restored with the power of guns in the “Right” hands, and the police do not have that power.

I find myself in such an awkward place with this movie. Were I to judge it simply by its filmmaking and acting, I would have to say that it is truly a great film. It seems so easy to be seduced by the movie’s visual brilliance and powerful performances. But when I think of how much the movie neglects to take into consideration the political economy that has created Harry Brown’s world and how it works so systematically to set up an Us-Versus-Them split that promotes Right Wing ideology, I just can’t endorse it.

In the end, the movie is a shallow exercise in vigilantism that promotes Michael Caine as the symbol of honorable order within a world that needs to be cleansed of the filthy and violent animalism of the disenfranchised. It contains none of the class depth or economic interrogation of This is England or Clint Eastwood’s working class vigilante in Gran Torino. It never once addresses contemporary economic reality such as in Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank (recent film also set on a Council Estate). Harry Brown simply shows the jobless as a scourge and vigilantism as the cure. It’s a real shame that the movie’s politics are so messed up because I really wanted to love this movie, but I can’t divorce my appreciation for its cinematography, editing, and acting from the message it is delivering. After all, cinema is a “message delivery system,” and I can’t help but think that this is just the kind of message that Right Wing conservatives love to see delivered. Fuck economic reform. Let’s just kill off the people who are a problem. That kind of thinking can lead to very bad things. For all its seeming brilliance, at the heart of Harry Brown is a shallow Good-versus-Evil narrative that promotes violent intolerance without interrogating social economics. How brilliant is that, really?

KIM NICOLINI is an artist, poet and cultural critic. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her daughter and a menagerie of beasts. She works a day job to support her art and culture habits. She is currently finishing a book-length essayistic memoir about being a teenage runaway in 1970s San Francisco. She can be reached at:




Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at