Greetings again from the darkness. Who in the world thought this would be the right time to release this film? Between holiday shopping and the new release schedule chock full of Oscar bait, dropping this hard-edged little film into theatres was box office suicide. And what a shame that is because there is definitely an audience for this exceedingly well acted snapshot of 2008 Rust Belt misery (has quite the holiday ring to it, eh?).
The steel mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania was once thriving, but is now on life support … just like the father of Rodney and Russell Baze. Casey Affleck plays Rodney, the brother who viewed enlisting in the Army as his way out of Braddock. When we meet him, he is about to leave for his 4th tour in the Iraq war. Russell (Christian Bale) is the more grounded, trying to do right brother. Russell dutifully works in the mill while trying to make a life with his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana).
Since life never hands folks in these towns a break, Russell ends up in prison, Rodney’s fourth tour leaves him scarred physically and emotionally, the dad dies, the girlfriend bolts, and the sleazy drug and crime world congregate right on top of the brothers’ heads. Rodney goes deeper into the ugly world of bare-knuckle fighting in an attempt to pay off his gambling debt to a local crime head played by Willem Dafoe (in yet another reptilian role). If you think cockfighting is merciless, the bare-knuckle fights held in backwoods Appalachian Mountains make that look like child’s play … and no tamales! The film is at its best when the nastiest of all these characters is on screen. Woody Harrelson plays Harlan DeGroat (great character name!), the soulless crime and drug lord of the area, who also runs (and fixes) these brutal fights. Harrelson is at his most menacing here, and even has Dafoe’s character a bit jumpy. Harlan DeGroat has no redeeming values, and admits to having “a problem with everybody”.
The story itself is quite predictable, but Bale, Affleck and Harrelson keep us glued to the screen. Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Dafoe have moments, but mostly their characters are underwritten here. Sam Shepard adds blue collar royalty as the uncle of the Baze boys. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) re-wrote Brad Ingelsby’s script, and it suffers from leaving us wanting more in regards to background and makeup of these characters. Still, the strong performances and the excellent score from Dickon Hinchliffe, keep us engaged and make this grimy, hopeless world something we can’t turn away from.
**NOTE: for a prime example of why so many of us consider Christian Bale one of the finest actors working today, check out the way he reacts to his release from prison … breathing fresh air for the first time, nervous energy that goes with freedom, pure joy in seeing his brother.