Jim does what Jim wants to do.
–David Ayer, commentary
Hey Jim, we should lose the monkey suits, dude.
–Mike (Freddy Rodriquez)
As self-identified “writer, producer and director” David Ayer observes the start of Harsh Times, he sounds impressed. And rightly so: not only are his actors topnotch — Christian Bale as damaged Gulf war vet Jim and Freddy Rodríguez as his unemployed best friend Mike — but the premise is sharp as well. As Ayer puts it, he’s got the two guys looking for jobs in L.A., “and the great thing about that is it’s a good excuse to put both main characters in suits driving around.”
It’s a small great thing, but it is, in fact, great. For the suits make Jim and Mike look out of place and time, even as they are deeply and desperately immersed in their moment. Ayer wrote the script in 1996, when, he says, he was “living a little bit the lifestyle the movie depicts, just a little bit, hanging out with my friends, lived in a bad neighborhood in L.A., running around, partying a lot, just kind of doing all the wrong things… I wanted to capture that and sort of create a study of friendship.”
Complex, destructive, and durable, this friendship informs all the decisions Mike and Jim make, together and apart. And as the movie — now out on DV with seven deleted scenes in addition to Ayers’ intelligent commentary — tracks their very bad couple of days, their decisions become increasingly reckless. Like delinquents skipping school, they tell Mike’s wife Sylvia (Eva Longoria) they’re going to follow up on classifieds (as much as Mike deceives her, Ayers notes, they “really do love each other. She just wants the guy to grow up, she just wants him to be a man”). Still, it takes Jim about two seconds in that car, in their suits, to convince Mike to give up the search for the day.
Their first, unimaginative, stop is a convenience store, where they buy a couple of 40s and a couple of smokes, literally. When the clerk won’t sell him two cigarettes, Jim looks close to exploding, but then he doesn’t have to. When punks attempt to rob the store, the clerk pulls out his gun. Suddenly, he’s worried that Jim and Mike — in their suits — might be authorities and he might be in trouble. The movie is full of such moments, when the boys look about to be busted, but a quick turn of fortune repays their stupidity with a spate of galvanizing violence and then a break.
Then Jim learns that his most-hoped-for job option, the LAPD, has rejected his application. This rebuff only underlines his general malaise: his first scene in the film is a bad dream of the war (shot, notes Ayer, on a mini-DV through a military night-vision scope, to enhance the “nightmare effect”), and his waking leads him directly into his relentless present. He kisses his trailer-welling Mexican fiancée Marta (Tammy Trull), then leaves her in tears, headed back to the States for the job he won’t get.
While Jim is angry and self-medicating, he’s also more symptomatic than individual. His immersion in aggressive, macho-man culture is longstanding, not just a function of his tour in the Gulf, but also a continuation of his youth in South Central, where he learned to hang tough with the cholos. Post-high school, he found another gang, the military, where his aggression was rewarded with the chance to kill anyone deemed “unfriendly.” In this environment, the film implies, Jim was appreciated. When he comes back, he’s lost — until he’s rediscovered by Homeland security.
This is Harsh Times‘ kind of cosmic joke, that the department is impressed with exactly what LAPD turns down in Jim. Where the cops decide his “psych” profile is dangerous, the feds think he’s just what they want. As Agent Richards (J.K. Simmons) puts it, some “important people have their eye on you.” But even if DHS talked to “had only great things to say about you,” well, his urinalysis shows signs of THC (this because he has spent weeks before high on everything he could get his hands on). The fact that he also screws up the polygraph, his score indicating “deception,” is another story. Seated in a room with three shady guys in suits, Jim looks worried. Little does he know that deception is exactly what the job calls for, along with aggression, cruelty, and Spanish. They want him to run and gun among/against drug lords in Colombia. When he resists, saying he was planning to marry, the agents — in harsh underlighting — tell him to put it off. Ayer says, “So it’s a choice between love and death.”
Jim chooses death, thankful, he says, for the “opportunity.” Again, as bad as Jim wants to be, the film insists that his ugliness and mischief is small-time compared to the havoc wreaked by socially approved bodies, from the cops to corporations to DHS. Inside these hallowed institutions, Harsh Times shows, men swagger and commit crimes, under color of law and the approval of their fellows. Ruthless, dedicated to any pledge he might take, and unafraid to hurt others, Jim calls himself a “soldier of the apocalypse.” He’s the supreme gung-ho participant in the forever war against terror. He wants to be in Colombia (though it could be anywhere). He wants to “whack people.”
Harsh Times is messy and disturbing: its yellowish light is abrasive, its handheld mobility and fast cuts insistent. And its method to make Jim an outsider in his own life is none too subtle: a white guy who hates being himself, a white guy cast among “others” he designates but also needs. During a last meeting with Marta in Mexico, he’s alarmed and she’s unrelentingly open to his menace, embracing her own vulnerability even as Jim is wholly unable to handle it. “Jim’s sort of like a lost soul right now,” observes Ayers. He’s also right on track, produced by years of training. Surrounded by people who don’t look like him — Marta, Mike, the “homeboys” he challenges and the dealer Toussant (Chaka Forman) he drags along to Mexico for a party night — Mike is most odious by his whiteness. Pale, hard, and hypermasculine, he’s still forlorn, still looking for acceptance. The film is a study of friendship failing. Less deviant than emblematic, Jim is a sign of his times.