(2013) Drama (Relativity) Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower, Bobby Wolfe, Dendrie Taylor, Carl Ciarfalio, Nancy Fosser, Bingo O’Malley, Jack Erdie, Gordon Michaels, Angela Kauffman, Charles David Richards, Tommy Lafitte, Tiffany Sander McKenzie. Directed by Scott Cooper
Times are tough. You don’t need to go to a movie to tell you that. In the Rust Belt, the manufacturing jobs that were once the bread and butter in the region have been shrinking away, slowly disappearing from view. That leaves the residents there scrambling to find other ways to make money.
Russell Baze (Bale) is one of the lucky few who still has employment at a steel mill. He lives with a young woman named Lena (Saldana) who adores him and the two are talking about starting a family. His brother Rodney (Affleck) is back home from a tour of Iraq in the army. Sure their dad (O’Malley) is dying of cancer but they have his brother and their Uncle Red (Shepard) to help them out. Things could certainly get a whole lot worse.
And then they do. Russell is involved in an incident not his fault that results in him getting sent to jail for a few years. Things begin to fall apart. Rodney goes back to Iraq. Their father dies. Even Lena leaves him, taking up with the chief of police Wesley (Whitaker) of their small town outside of Pittsburgh. All of a sudden things don’t make sense quite as much.
When Rodney returns and Russell finishes his time in jail, they both need to pick up the pieces. For Russell, that means obsessively stalking Lena and getting his job back at the mill while fixing up his dad’s old place. For Rodney, that means bare knuckle fights to pick up cash for a debt he owes to local bar owner and dealer of all things shady John Petty (Dafoe).
Rodney needs more money to fix up his debt however and he cajoles Petty into getting him a fight in rural New Jersey where a meth kingpin named Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson) runs things. Like any decent mountain community, they don’t cotton to no city folk telling them how to run things. When things go bad, Russell is left to pick up the pieces and do the right thing for his brother.
First of all, this is a movie that isn’t well-served by its trailer. It gives away an important plot twist and intimates that this is a different kind of movie than it is. The trailer implies that this is a thriller and quite frankly, that element of the movie only takes place over the last 20 minutes or so. The rest of the movie is more of a drama which is how I’m characterizing it now.
Cooper, whose first feature was Crazy Heart takes a completely different turn here on this his second. The milieu is much bleaker which is saying something considering that his last movie was about an alcoholic country singer whose career is fading into the twilight. Cooper has a knack at capturing working class life and working class people. As an actor himself he also manages to wring some excellent performances out of his actors.
Bale delivers just such a performance. He’s low-key and soft-spoken throughout most of the film but rage boils in him and sometimes boils over. He’s a decent man at heart but life has thrown just about everything at him he can tolerate and then some. There’s a scene with Saldana on a wooden bridge in which he tries to rekindle things after he gets out of prison that is so heartbreaking that you won’t be able to get it out of your head. In fact, it’s not just Saldana and Bale that do good work here – nearly every member of the principal leads is mesmerizing.
Harrelson is also noteworthy as the villain. When DeGroat meets Russell for the first time in Petty’s office and the two have words, Russell asks him “You got a problem with me?” and DeGroat responds “I got a problem with everybody” and that encapsulates the character. He’s as mean as a rattlesnake and prone to outbursts of violence as evidenced by the very first scene in which DeGroat beats a man half to death for intervening when DeGroat assaults his date at a drive-in. Harrelson captures that meanness and rage. There’s nothing redeeming about DeGroat, no qualities at all that make things around him better. He’s a cancer in his community that everyone is afraid to operate on.
There are a lot of good things about this movie but for some reason I couldn’t connect with it. Maybe I wasn’t ready for a movie quite as bleak as this. Perhaps it’s because it’s a little bit too long. Maybe the ending scene which didn’t ring true and was followed by an extraneous coda did me in. Or maybe it just wasn’t my cup of tea to begin with. Da Queen was very taken by the movie and would have given it a significantly higher score than I did – she was frankly surprised that I didn’t enjoy it as much as she did because normally I go for these sorts of films.
For whatever reason I didn’t here and that can be taken for whatever grain of salt you wish to give it. The elements are all here for a good movie and in fact you may well find it to be more rewarding than I did. For me there didn’t seem to be much of a point to it – unrelenting violence and despair with nothing at the end that made me think it was all worth it. Perhaps that was the point. In any case, I found this a movie in which the ingredients were superior but it didn’t add up to a gourmet dish.
REASONS TO GO: Solid performances throughout by an excellent cast.
REASONS TO STAY: Overly long. The ending was quite the letdown.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some pretty strong language and some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie playing at the drive-in during the opening scene is Midnight Meat Train.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Winter’s Bone
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Holly and the Quill Christmas movie festival begins!