Jim Davis (Christian Bale), honorably discharged Army Ranger, is haunted by nightmares of his tour of duty, but he's hopeful about his future with his girlfriend, Marta (Tammy Trull), and his prospects for work with the LAPD. Meanwhile, he kicks around his old neighborhood with pal Mike Alvarez (Freddy Rodriguez), getting high on weed they've ripped off from a local dealer and harassing rival crews for cheap thrills.
Harsh Times follows these two friends around south central Los Angeles for about five days, compressing time, place and action into a ghetto tragedy that elicits our fear and pity. Jim is flawed in the classic sense, his fate determined by his hubris, but he is a sympathetic character who in other circumstances, exercising better judgment and benefiting from a bit of luck, might have managed a good life. As it turns out, he casually sows the seeds of his own destruction, unable to escape his past and, with pal Mike, incapable of reconsidering their misguided sense of loyalty and bonhomie.
Writer and director David Ayer (Training Day, The Fast and the Furious) based the screenplay on his experiences growing up in L.A. and financed the film by mortgaging his house, shooting the movie in 26 days on Super 16 and lighting location sets with mercury and sodium vapor lamps...harsh times indeed. The technique suits the material, however. Cinematographer Steve Mason and production designer Devorah Herbert capture the inner city with such conviction that Ayer can embellish his story with impressionistic episodes otherwise gratuitous, including a murder in a barrio bar. Most of these moments are offered in homage to Martin Scorsese--Harsh Times is an amalgam of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver--but a few seem inspired by David Lynch. When the Department of Homeland Security expresses interest in Jim's special-ops skills, Ayer serves up an interview with agents (including J.K. Simmons) who no doubt worked the Twin Peaks case.
Some aspects of the movie are implausible. Mike's live-in girlfriend, Sylvia (Eva Longoria), works as a lawyer or paralegal--it's unclear, except that she owes her career to Mike, who put her through school. That kind of ambition and sacrifice presupposes a serious relationship, which Ayer attempts to establish, but it never seems more than a contrivance to serve the plot. On the other hand, Jim's courtship of Marta, who lives in a ramshackle hut somewhere south of the border, comes across as tender and authentic. She lets us glimpse the better side of Jim as she comforts him from his night terrors, exchanging endearments in halting Spanish.
At any rate, Harsh Times is a buddy movie, focusing on the bond between Jim and Mike and the acquaintances they visit in an attempt to offload a hot semiautomatic handgun (including the cherubic Toussant, coyly played by Chaka Forman, who accompanies the boys to Mexico on a lost weekend). Rodriguez delivers a solid, energetic performance, but Bale is the actor to watch. Proud of his service but confused about his actions on the battlefield, Jim is arrogant and sadistic, but also loyal and brave. He can be charming and even sensitive with Marta, but he is cynical and fatalistic about his chances in the larger world. Bale manages to give us all sides of this character, distorted by post-traumatic syndrome and substance abuse. It's his best performance since his haunting turn as the wasted worker in The Machinist, another gritty study in psychosis that is sometimes hard to watch. Harsh Times is dark and brutal, not the kind of film that lures a large audience or garners awards, although it deserves both.