David Ayer’s debut feature Harsh Times, starring Christian Bale as an alienated war vet who drags his best friend (Freddy Rodríguez) on a self-immolating rampage through L.A., is so bad it’s hypnotic—overlong, overcooked and trading in a B-movie version of sociological awareness that plays like clueless racist spelunking. The structurally similar Training Day, which Ayer wrote and coproduced, was flashy, shallow and mostly full of shit—like a season of The Shield compressed into two hours—but at least it had a visually competent director, strong backup work from Ethan Hawke (in the “Oh my God, I can’t believe he just did that” sidekick role, played here by Rodriguez), and a hammy but exciting lead performance from Denzel Washington. Harsh Times, in contrast, isn’t so much directed as covered like an NFL game (calling the camerawork and compositions “functional” gives them too much credit). Ayer’s script, which follows Jim his outwardly more respectable best buddy Mike on a booze-and-pot fueled flight from adult male obligation, plays like a term paper about arrested adolescence translated into Hollywood psychodrama, fortified with out-of-nowhere explosions of machismo-fueled street mayhem, then sprinkled with ostentatiously faux-natural ghetto slang. Much of the latter is awkwardly extruded from the mouth of Bale, an intense and versatile young star who, until now, seemed incapable of giving a dull or obvious performance. Playing a white underclass hardcase who’s internalized Chicano street posturing (and learned to speak decent Spanish), he instead suggests a member of Max Fischer’s repertory company stumbling through a high school stage version of Bound by Honor—pronouncing “bullshit” as “boo-shit,” and crowing keepers like “I got a bone, Gracie!” and “Roll dat shit up!”
The movie’s character development signposts and sociological observations are hamfisted from the get-go, yet Ayer foregrounds them anyway, in the matter-of-factly pompous manner of an “important” NBC drama fishing for Emmys during sweeps week. When Jim, Mike and a third pal go to Mexico to hang with Jim’s Mexican-born fiancé and her mom—two near-saints standing apart from the film’s gallery of plush hoze and castrating bitches—Ayer nicely illustrates their sense of entitlement by juxtaposing shots of the women washing laundry by hand and the men sunning themselves by a riverbank. But Ayer can’t leave well enough alone: first, Jim assures his pals that they have no obligation to help the women with the laundry—a spell-it-out misstep to start with—and then Mike compounds the obviousness by nerdily exclaiming, “Yeah, we’re men—they know we don’t do that shit!” It’s the kind of movie that presents two best friends who cling to each other like brothers, then at a turning point has one declare, “You’re like my brother—you’re all I got.” There are no grace notes in Harsh Times, only tuba solos.
Equally irritating, and far more egregious, is the film’s half-cartoon, half “real” vision of street life, which slips a prophylactic of socially conscious melodrama over a Crazy-Badass-White-Man fantasy (a la Falling Down), the better to inoculate itself against inevitable (and in this case, well-founded) charges of indulging a safari mentality. Harsh Times whipsaws between a facsimile of plausible realism (Jim and Mike crouching behind Jim’s car and watching a daylight drug ripoff with gunplay, Jim’s no-big-deal grin confirming that after Iraq, this is kid stuff) and a pampered movie director’s conception of the ghetto as a Hobbesean Disneyland with a different outrage on every corner. Jim, who wants a job in law enforcement but keeps letting his appetites and temper fuck things up, and Mike, an unemployed ex-homeboy with middle class aspirations who’d rather get drunk and baked with Jim than hunt for a job to please his nagging lawyer wife (Eva Longoria, making no impression whatsoever), wander Los Angeles and get involved in violent situations; some are their own damn fault (in the opening section, they follow the aforementioned drug thief and jack his stash, and later, they come into possession of a pistol and try to sell it), while others are obligatorily visited upon them like some sort of ghetto lifestyle tax (every other encounter produces a chalk outline). It’s like Crash by way of Grand Theft Auto.
Jim’s determination to marry his special lady friend in Mexico is supposed to make him seem sympathetic, or at least human. But thanks to Bale’s hornet-in-the-pants jumpiness, there’s no modulation, no evolution, no arc. Jim seems primed to explode the second you meet him, and as the movie unreels, explode he does—over and over and over and over, then again for old time’s sake. Jim’s accumulating misfortune, which pushes him further away from his dream of romantic redemption in Mexico, is supposed to make him a pitiable, tragic figure. But between his penchant for chest-thumping confrontation, his various doltish professional missteps (for instance, smoking pot after he’s rejected as an LAPD candidate, even though he has other law enforcement applications floating around unprocessed) and his ceaseless and apparently remorse-free manipulation of his brother-in-spirit, Mike (a non-character whose behavior makes no sense from scene to scene; he basically does whatever the script needs him to do in order to witness Jim’s madness up close and react with fearful incredulity), Jim just comes off as a crazy asshole to whom no halfway functioning person would give the time of day.
The unacknowledged elephant in this cinematic room is Jim’s relationship to the overwhelmingly poor, minority world through which he swaggers and emotes. (Bale’s characterization only comes alive when Jim is terrorizing people; coiled rage is this actor’s specialty.) How did Jim become a part of this environment? Was it through his uprbringing (iffy, since Bale’s screen presence reads as thoroughly white and upper middle class), or by way of his war experience? We don’t know, and given the provocative and sometimes ethnically explosive situations onscreen, we’re entitled to a few hints. At certain points, it seems as though Ayer is going to put Jim’s strutting schoolyard resentment (and Chicano homeboy mannerisms) in context of the modern professional military, which, through cross-cultural fraternization, exposure to wartime violence and post-service neglect, gives every American warrior, regardless of cultural background, a version of minority consciousness, and a concurrent sense of being marginalized, even used and discarded. But Jim’s rage isn’t that thought out. It’s a screenwriter’s conceit—free-floating, unmoored to anything quantifiable. UItimately his vet profile seems less the fuse that lit his time-bomb personality than a screenwriter’s shorthand for why he can beat up five big brown guys at once, and a catch-all explanation for his flamboyant nuttiness. (The idea of Jim using his own Iraq trauma as an excuse to pop off is an interesting one; unfortunately, it’s barely touched by Ayer). Nobody’s asking Ayer to “explain” his white hero in relationship to his mostly nonwhite milieu; God knows he explains everything else to death, and Taxi Driver-like heroes tend to be more compelling, and real-seeming, when they’re allowed a bit of mystery. But some subtly established, visually elucidated inquiry into Jim’s personality and behavior (like Scorsese’s slow-mo POV shots of Taxi Driver’s title character staring down various black men) might have gone a long way towards making the film’s bloody hijinks seem less silly and gratuitous. Here and there, Ayer and Bale give us a moment that threatens to transcend contrivance and connect with emotional reality: for instance, the scene where Jim takes a phone call from a recruiter at the Department of Homeland Security, standing outside his apartment in his sock feet and pitching his “Yes, sirs” an octave lower than normal, while kids frolic nearby and an offscreen ice cream truck plays “Turkey in the Straw.” But such moments are few and far between, and they linger onscreen for an instant, then evaporate.
Intriguingly, when J.K. Simmons shows up as a Homeland Security Recruiter, his jocular smugness elbows Harsh Times into the realm of black comedy, and it turns out to be just the right groove. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the damned thing plays—and even makes conceptual sense. If the entire movie had been pitched at the level of Bale’s scenes with Simmons—whose affable, gladhanding officer character, in a nice Kubrickian touch, is interested in Jim precisely because he’s a rootless, malleable, emotionally numb killing machine—Harsh Times might have bypassed complaints about absurdity or exploitation on the grounds that it’s satire and/or allegory, not meant to be taken literally; if it had stayed off the streets and stuck to cubicles and piss tests and the rivalry between tight-assed would-be terror warriors, it could have been the black ops answer to Office Space, or perhaps a military-industrial cousin of Mary Harron’s superb American Psycho, a blacker-than-black comedy featuring Bale’s career-best performance. But Ayer’s too sincere, too obviously grubbing after the adjective “powerful,” to pose as a satirist. Most of the film’s comedy, alas, is incidental.