Some of the most impressive first features are those that don’t appear to be first features at all – that, instead, seem like the work of a seasoned pro who commits fully to familiar material, and somehow reinvigorates clichés and conventions. “Braven” marks the directorial debut of Lin Oeding, a veteran stunt coordinator and second unit director whose credits run the gamut from high-end studio projects (“The Equalizer,” “Inception”) to guilty-pleasure genre pastiches (“The Baytown Outlaws,” “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning”), so it’s hardly surprising that the fight scenes and run-and-gun clashes here are brutally efficient and efficiently brutal. What is unexpected is Oeding’s confidently unhurried, no-sweat approach to introducing characters and connections, and his straightforward, almost aggressively non-flashy attentiveness to such niceties as spatial relationships and cause-and-effect details during the rough stuff. If Don Siegel or John Sturges had lived long enough to try his hand at a VOD-centric melodrama, it probably would have looked and sounded a lot like this one.
Taking a break from his ongoing gig as Aquaman in the DC Extended Universe, lead player (and producer) Jason Momoa credibly dials it down to the level of blue-collar hero as Joe Braven, the hands-on owner-operator of a rural Newfoundland logging company that evidently is less than diligent when it comes to vetting employees. Joe is a cheerfully loving husband to Stephanie (Jill Wagner); a playful parent to their young daughter Charlotte (Sasha Rosoff); and an increasing worried protector of Linden (Stephen Lang), his aging father, who has been edging into dementia ever since he survived a serious workplace accident, and now has a bothersome habit of getting into barroom brawls with the husbands of women he mistakes for his late wife.
Of course, since this is, after all, a VOD-centric melodrama, you can rest assured that Joe will face far more demanding challenges than deciding whether to institutionalize dear old dad. Fairly early in “Braven,” it’s revealed that Weston (Brendan Fletcher), one of Joe’s delivery-truck drivers, moonlights as a drug courier by transporting bags of heroin along with the logs. When Weston and Hallet (Zahn McClarnon), his partner in crime, skid off the road during a nighttime snowfall, they opt to hide their stash in Joe’s secluded hunting cabin — conveniently located near the accident — before inquisitive cops show up. It seems like a good idea at the time.
The next day, however, when Weston and Hallet return to the cabin with Kassen (Garret Dillahunt), the drug kingpin whose stash has been stashed, and a few armed minions, they find Joe and Linden have trekked out to the cabin to spend some quality time together. Nothing good comes of this.
To their credit, Oeding and screenwriter Thomas Pa’a Sibbett don’t try to “explain” Joe’s resourcefulness and resilience by making him a retired Special Ops soldier or CIA hit man. Rather, they define Joe as a relatively ordinary guy who’s driven to extremes (and forced to improvise lethal weapons) to defend himself, his father, and — yes, they have no shame in this regard — little Charlotte, who surreptitiously came along for the ride. There’s more than a hint of Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” in the scenes that depict Joe’s DIY approach to warding off home invaders with metal rods, hunting bows, red-hot tongs, and anything else he can scrounge in the cabin. For his part, Linden provides cover from his upstairs vantage point, and even takes a few good shots, with a scope-equipped hunting rifle. But the movie keeps us from ever feeling too secure in regard to the old man’s capabilities with sporadic reminders that, well, he’s not entirely sentient.
“Braven” remains exciting and suspenseful even after Joe vrooms out of the claustrophobic cabin setting on an ATV, triggering a manhunt in the snow that further illustrates Oeding’s ability to choreograph action in clear, clean fashion. And that action is all the more involving because the freshman filmmaker gives his actors sufficient time to flesh out their characters before the bullets (and arrows) start flying.
Momoa neatly balances physicality, vulnerability and unpredictability in a performance that recalls his standout work in the underrated Sundance TV series “The Red Road,” while Lang’s vivid portrayal of a lion in winter is potently charged with alternating currents of angry pride and fearful confusion. Individually and collectively, they make the father-son bond arrestingly compelling. In one scene, Linden pointedly reminds Joe that he turned the logging business over to his son, and more or less guilt-trips Joe into insisting he would never, ever, put his dad in his home. At that point, it stops being a scene, and simply is.
Fletcher effectively plays the drug lord Kassen as a self-styled martinet who clearly enjoys giving orders and cracking heads; you get the feeling that he leads the raid on the cabin not because such an action is necessary, but because he really enjoys acting like he’s the general of an invading army. Wagner capably rises to the challenge of conveying that, when push comes to shove, Stephanie can be just as tough — and accurate — as her husband. And even though McClarnon (another “Red Road” alum) has only a secondary role, he once again indicates, as he has in the cable series “Longmire” and “The Son,” that he has sufficient screen presence to steal any scene that isn’t bolted to the floor.
The lensing by Brian Andrew Mendoza is exceptional, and the score by Justin Small and Ohad Benchetrit enhances moods without ever overstating the obvious. To put it simply and gratefully: “Braven” is the sort of unpretentious yet thoroughly professional popcorn entertainment that brings out the best in everybody involved.
By Joe Leydon