2006Director: David Ayer
Cast: Christian Bale, Freddy Rodriguez, Eva Longoria
he more I see of Christian Bale, the less convinced I am that he’s going to show me something worth seeing. He’s hardly bad at what he does; I don’t think he’s ever given an out-and-out terrible performance, and I don’t think he ever will. But the problem is, he’s much more of a performer than an actor—the typical Bale turn is a collection of accents and tics that stand in for the people he’s supposed to be playing. His characters are like costumes he wears for two hours at a time.
Honestly, I can’t think of one major contemporary actor whose performances are as completely externalized as Bale’s. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either: When he’s playing a Patrick Bateman or a Bruce Wayne, characters who were shallow and iconic to begin with, he’s a perfect fit. But when he’s called upon to play a Jim Davis, the self-destructive Afghanistan vet of Harsh Times, a character whose entire arc is determined by inner turmoil, his bag of mannerisms just isn’t enough to hold the movie together.
Bale is only one of the problems with Harsh Times, but a stronger performance from him might have solved a lot of the rest. Example: David Ayer’s script could have been the foundation for some fine filmmaking; we might expect a story that revolves around a psychologically damaged veteran to progress in fairly obvious, Rambo-esque ways, yet Ayer’s writing is nuanced, intelligent, and never falls into the trap of looking for an easy way out of the conflicts that drive it.
But in his directorial debut, Ayer undermines his screenwriting efforts at every turn. Like Dark Blue and Training Day (both written by Ayer) before it, this is a dialogue-driven movie—at least half the film consists of conversations between Bale and his best friend (Freddy Rodriguez) as they drive through their L.A. homeland, looking for drugs, women, and work (in pretty much that order). A veteran director would find it hard enough to make a visually engaging film where the same two characters spend so much time talking in the same car. Ayer doesn’t seem to understand that a film’s palette has to vary from time to time—almost every scene is painted in the same washed-out, grainy, overcast tones and structured as a bland series of close-ups and two-shots. It’s a shame there isn’t any U2 on the soundtrack—this movie really is stuck in a moment.
Of course, visuals don’t matter quite as much in a quiet, character-driven movie like this; if it was ever going to work, the actors needed to provide the surprises the director couldn’t. Bale would have had to hold things together, without betraying the conception of his character as a hardened, stoic killer by resorting to his usual flamboyant trickery. He gives it a shot, but even his best, wildest performances have had an inherently hollow quality to them; if he doesn’t have any tricks up his sleeve, he has nothing at all. When he’s telling his civilian buddy just what it’s like to kill a man, or bullying his ex-girlfriend, or even flying into violent rages, you never get the sense that there’s a killer—or anything else—inside him.
In fact, you don’t get many senses at all watching this movie. You can’t feel sorrow, pity, fear, or loathing when the most important actor in a film registers as a complete blank. When an actor comes up as short as Bale does here, the best screenwriters and directors in the world would be left with a load of pretty pictures and beautiful words, and no movie to show for their efforts.
Harsh Times is playing in theatres across the country.
By: Chris Anderson
Published on: 2006-11-14