War is hell.
That seems to be the driving thought behind Harsh Times. This new film from David Ayer (writer of Training Day) shows the sociologicial problems of training soldiers to be nothing more than killing machines. The movie opens with a disorienting night attack with soldiers systematically slaughtering their enemy spliced with cuts of a main character calmly smoking a cigarette surrounded by bodies. This type of disassociated violence continues throughout.
Christian Bale plays the violent and erratic lead character, Jim. Having been discharged from the army, it's illustrated early that Jim is only able to function when given an order, a stark contrast to Freddy Rodriguez's portrayal of his foil and best friend, Michael. The first half of the movie is dedicated to the relationship between the two characters. Jim is on the fast track to a glowing career with the LAPD and Michael has his beautiful, curvaceous girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria). The happy times fall apart when Jim is kicked off the force and he and Michael go on a bender.
Shot in a gritty, in-your-face style similar to Training Day, Harsh Times forces viewers to empathize with Jim's plight, but also be terrified of his incredible volatility. His downward spiral towards mental instability and increasingly violent actions is sold with a sympathy only an accomplished actor like Bale could.
As a character obviously suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Jim shows a total disregard for human life and this is illustrated well by both the acting and directorial style. The grainy filmstock and expressionistic lighting convey almost as much as the actors. Subtle touches, like differences in colour saturation, go a long way to describing Jim's emotional state. During the day, the colours are brighter and Jim is happier, but the night brings out his demons. While this movie would be easy to write off as nothing more than a gory spectacle of violence, the violence ends up being justified as a vehicle for the message by Ayer's fantastic execution.
In Training Day, Ayers made Denzel Washington's bad cop an extremely likeable villain, and he does something different with Bale, who plays an arguably similar role. Jim is just a regular guy who's been trained to kill, but his engineered bloodlust has made him repulsive to the average viewer. With Jim, Ayers has created a character that the viewer would like to feel for, but can't. It's telling as to the effect of violence on polite society and worth watching because of it.