Desperate for a job with the LAPD, unemployed army veteran Jim David (Bale) kills time by driving around and getting high with his friend Mike (Rodriguez). Jim wants to settle down with his Mexican girlfriend (Trull), but the rage he carries inside threatens to push him over the edge.
For his directorial debut, screenwriter David Ayer — Training Day, Dark Blue, S.W.A.T. — sticks to what he knows: two guys in a car. In LA. With shoot-outs on the streets and dodgy cops lurking in the wings. Yet Harsh Times is angrier than the above screenplays put together.
As Jim David, a blistering Christian Bale almost forces Six Feet Under’s Freddy Rodríguez off the screen. That Bale is willing to go all the way for a role has been true since American Psycho, and to some extent, Jim is a blue-collar Bateman. However, where Bateman’s violent streak was fantastical, Jim’s rage is very real. As a troubled Gulf War vet he is struggling to make distinctions between the everyday world and the battlefield, where murder is acceptable. Physically and mentally, Bale is astonishing; Jim is a seductive, repulsive, self-destructive maelstrom of a man. Rodriguez’s low-key work just about stops the film from becoming a one-man show, while Ayer uses Jim and Mike’s car rides to convey the odd combination of peer pressure and unshakeable loyalty that marks their relationship. At times he batters these points home, but when you consider how many ‘Jims’ the US is currently shipping home from Iraq, the naked aggression in Harsh Times takes on a wider, more frightening dimension.
Shot and acted on an adrenaline rush, Harsh Times has the free structure and intensity of a true indie film, but is sometimes just a little off-balance.