Known for penning no-brainers such as U-571 and The Fast and the Furious, David Ayer must have amazed Hollywood with his artful script for Training Day. Less amazingly, despite that film’s Oscar success, no studio would touch his new, repetitive LA drama Harsh Times, leaving Ayer to direct and fund the film himself. This is the flip-side of indie successes like Brick and Primer: top-quality production values backing up a poor and unoriginal script.
Jim Davis (Christian Bale) has been discharged from the Army, and is looking for a decent job so he can marry a Mexican girl. He hooks up with old buddy Mike (Freddy Rodriguez), also unemployed, and the two drive around LA drinking beer, prank phone-calling and getting into scrapes. They get stoned. They try to sell a stolen gun. They go to Mexico. Throughout, the two men bang on about how much they love the girlfriends they are ignoring and betraying (who are, of course, pure, hard-working and honest, despite one being a lawyer).
This is “Dude, Where’s My Plot?” The protagonists drift from one scene to the next, driven only by coincidence and idiot luck. Tension is created but almost immediately undermined. Jim loses a job; he is offered another. They witness a murder; they flee. They are pulled over by a police car for drink-driving; but the cop is an old friend who wants to catch up. When he goes Mike throws away his card: the editor could have done the same with the whole sequence. If a confused projectionist played the reels of Harsh Times out of order it would be impossible to tell: the narrative cohesion is that of a Garfield annual (after whose creator Bale’s character appears to have been named).
Ayer wrote the script at twenty and it shows. There is none of the careful characterisation or uneasy morality that marked out Training Day – indeed, Harsh Times feels like a first draft of that better film. The road-movie set-up is similar. The dialogue is the same slick mix of dudes and dawgs and repetitive female objectification. There is even one identical twist. But without the innocent Ethan Hawke to act as the audience’s point of contact there are no conflicts and no ambiguties to plumb. The film and its inhabitants are shallow and callous. When the final contrived come-uppance is trotted out it is difficult for the viewer to credit it or care.
The actors do a lot to lift proceedings. The two leads are entertaining and expressive, and their streetwise banter feels fresh and genuine. Bale puts in yet another ice-perfect performance as the unpredictable and aggressive Davis and his switches of character are well-handled. In the first two scenes he seems to be play different men and it’s a credit to him that they’re swiftly pulled into one (utterly unlikeable) character. Rodriguez provides decent support, but as the Bill to Bale’s Ted he has little to do but react.
First-time director Ayer does a good job with the film’s look. Every frame is beautifully lit, with the sun-baked streets looking gloriously washed-out and desert-like. There are moments of creative editing and a pretentious dash of bullet-time. There’s a slight hip-hop soundtrack but it’s clumsily inserted, often coming in after the action is over.
Harsh Times wants to be a modern morality play but comes across like a drama-school improvisation, full of “issues” but without the mettle to follow any of them through. There are a few flashes of imagination – Jim’s eye-watering fixing of a urine test and his later experience on the polygraph machine – but they can’t make up for the sheer quantity of dead air. In the end, the protagonists are unlikeable, unintelligent, and ultimately implausible: if life in LA was like this no-one would last a week. Ayer’s desperate desire for drama has created nothing but a mess.