Harsh Times

| December 10, 2006

Nerve-janglingly intense, director David Ayer’s brutally visceral study of lost male souls careening through the mean streets of a blistering, derelict L.A. (with a would-be idyllic interlude across the border into Mexico shattered by one’s increasing instability) is a savagely observed, passionately unflinching portrayal of masculine meltdown. As the environment is torn straight out of Ayer’s own background, each frame is informed by a searing immediacy–I can sense the heat and grime, the seaminess of the city nudging and teasing the characters’ already-frayed nerves and simmering frustrations into bolder displays of violence and destruction.
Christian Bale is frighteningly uptight, and dangerously taut, as ex-U.S. Ranger Jim, clearly a walking casualty of a military process that strips an individual of humanity so as to be the most effective weapon, then abandons once his use has expired, unable to provide any helpful way to reintegrate into society. Jim refers to himself as a soldier of the apocalypse, a statement that embodies his standing estrangement from the greater culture; it’s very apparent that the nightmare visions of his war experience nestle snugly in his conscience-they’re present in his constant agitated energy and in his refusal to accept any gesture toward love or salvation. He has returned to L.A. with hopes of joining the police department, but some troubling psychological aspects to his military record scuttle that goal’s success. Homeland Security then approaches him with an offer to be dropped into a Columbian hot zone, obviously recognizing their need for loose cannons-unlike state law enforcement, Homeland Security can much more easily accommodate the most extreme of souls. This offer only exacerbates in Jim the idea that his only purpose now is as a tool of vengeance, usually other people’s (the only other option is to live a relative life of peace with the pure love of his Mexican girlfriend, which he effectively–and tragically–rejects in a scene guaranteed to stop the breath and break the heart).
Mike (Freddy Rodriguez, playing effective straight man to Bale’s abandon) is meant to be making the job rounds, dropping off his resume to various businesses, in an effort to please his wife, now an aspiring young attorney whom he supported throughout school. Their home is an uneasy powder keg of sexual dynamics, just waiting for a firebrand like Jim to arrive and start a conflagration. The wife is played by Eva Longoria, a long way from the airbrushed Wisteria Lane of Desperate Housewives, as a woman vigilantly aware of the dominant influence Jim has over her husband: I see her body bristle and tense whenever Bale comes into frame, as if preparing for battle. Their few quick scenes together carry an adversarial frission, and it’s Mike’s soul that’s at stake. Longoria wears the grit well. Although it’s never explained just how Jim and Mike know each other, I accept in the easy interplay between the two a satisfactory history, and can understand the ways in which a more timid and proper man like Mike has always been dazzled and attracted to the more illicit charisma of a character like Jim. In the way Jim coaxes out of Mike any feelings of emasculation and diminishment he may be harbouring regarding his current status and goading him on to more irresponsible behaviour, I see the psychology that’s always bonded them: Mike needs Jim as a conduit to his more basic nature.
Although superficially a repellent and disreputable character, Bale makes Jim compulsively watchable. Certifiably unhinged he may be, but Bale miraculously reveals layers of honor and tenderness beneath the trauma and dysfunction. There’s just enough left of Jim’s humanity that he stares out at himself in absolute appalled disbelief and sad fear. What emerges as the arc of the film is Jim’s drive to be delivered from his state; it’s as if he’s orchestrated the events in such a way that he will find a culminating moment of peace, a moment when he will be freed from the tyranny of a tired mind (and body) that can’t possibly process happiness, or value, for itself. Mike’s journey is just as riveting, as it slowly dawns on him the extent to which his friend is lost-no longer just the hijinks of a raucous schoolboy, Jim has no ability to function as an adult male–all proportion and perspective has been taken away; before the night is through, Mike will be asked to return certain favors, become an agent himself, and his life will change.
Ayer, like Joe Carnahan before him with the film Narc, takes conventional crime material and shifts it into deeper existential territory, demanding that his audience engage challengingly with the deeper moral and ethical inquiries that the material dredges up. The audience is not allowed to coast along on the juice of the violence and gunplay; the action is not merely faceless thrill, but turns in on itself sickeningly and queasily; the characters sweat and bleed and haunt with too much presence to be dismissed casually. Ayer makes you feel the force of Mike’s final approach to his wife–whatever misgivings and petty grievances that may exist between them are set aside as the majesty of what he has just experienced supersedes all other concerns, as he seeks succour from his beloved. It’s the greatest act of faith in a film that easily illustrates the cost of having that kind of faith taken from you.

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