Harsh Times (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

First and foremost, Harsh Times is a character study of a man whose psychotic dark side is rising up to dominate his personality. However, it's also a look at how war, because of its need to legitimatize killing and turn people into weapons, can result in the dissolution of humanity. When we consider casualty reports from battles, the numbers reflect death and physical injury. One thing that is never listed is the psychological toll. Few individuals who go off to war and experience its devastation and chaos return as the same person. This factor lies at the heart of what Harsh Times illustrates.

We do not know Jim Davis (Christian Bale) before he goes away to participate in the Gulf War. Aside from some nightmarish flashbacks, the film transpires after Jim's tour of duty is over. He's back in South Central L.A., looking for a job. He's clearly a disturbed individual, but there are clues in the words and actions of others that he was once a generous, laid-back individual. That's not the Jim with whom we become familiar over the two hour span of Harsh Times This Jim is a seething mass of anger and frustration with a hair trigger. When the circumstances call for it, he can be respectful and caring, but those qualities are increasingly in less evidence as his need for risk taking and his paranoid psychosis dominate his personality. This places his best friend, Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), and his Mexican girlfriend, Marta (Tammy Trull), at risk.

Jim and Mike go out for a drive, ostensibly looking for jobs. This is a source of concern for Mike's live-in lover, Sylvia (Eva Longoria). She wants Mike to find employment but doesn't trust Jim. Mike sees his friend for who he was; Sylvia sees him for who he has become. When Jim's application to become an L.A. police officer is rejected after he fails his psychological profile, he spends the day hanging out with Mike, drinking, doing drugs, and committing petty crimes to get a few dollars. Eventually, the Department of Homeland Security shows interest in Jim but Mike is no closer to getting a job and he is becoming more enmeshed in Jim's self-destructive web.

Harsh Times occasionally echoes Taxi Driver, Ayer's own Training Day, and even First Blood in the way it examines the psychological disintegration of a character and the seduction of amorality. This movie isn't as compelling as the first two and isn't as viscerally crowd-pleasing as the third, but there are enough good points to make Harsh Times worth consideration. Chief of those is the volcanic performance of a pre-Batman Begins Christian Bale. Bale plays Jim as an ordinary guy whose psyche has been pulled too tight by circumstances. When Mike asks him what it's like to kill someone, he replies that it's nothing. For Jim, this is the truth, not bravado. He is not a colorful anti-hero; he's a frightening one. Spending two hours with him is harrowing and uncomfortable. It has its rewards, but they are not conventional ones. Those who demand a connection between the audience and a film's main character will not relate to what Harsh Times has to offer.

Ayer wrote this script before the United States launched its recent war against Iraq. It was filmed nearly two years ago, but the distance between inception and release has deepened the immediacy of the subject matter. Ayer argues that war damages even seemingly healthy young men and, in a twist of bitter irony, those who are the most psychologically disturbed may be the best choices for covert law enforcement jobs. As long at they can be controlled, at least for a time, who is better at leading a dangerous operation than someone who has been trained to kill and who has lost the fear of death? These issues and questions exist within Harsh Times' subtext. The narrative is about Mike getting re-acquainted with his old friend, learning how different Jim has become in so many small ways, and trying to survive their short time together.

Harsh Times (United States, 2006)

Director: David Ayer
Cast: Christian Bale, Freddy Rodriguez, Eva Longoria, Chaka Forman, Tammy Trull
Screenplay: David Ayer
Cinematography: Steve Mason
Music: Graeme Revell
U.S. Distributor: MGM
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2006-11-10
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1