The first trailer I saw of this movie seemed like a story that could have been a direct-to-DVD Jason Statham movie, but then the trailer started listing the actors (Academy Award winner Christian Bale, Academy Award nominee Casey Affleck, etc.), and I wondered if this was an Oscar-bait flick. Apparently it is, and opposed to the Statham direct to DVD version that would have been all vengeance-action, this is all character studies of these people in a difficult situation – yes, with some vengeance-action thrown in, but very little.
Russell Baze is a hard-working steel town man living in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania. He is taking care of his dying father with the assistance of his uncle, while his younger brother, Rodney, is shipping back and forth to Afghanistan, serving multiple tours with the army. He’s got a wonderful girlfriend who wants to start a family with him, and a decent job at the steel mill. However, his younger brother, when he’s home, is reckless with his money, and his life- probably as a result of PTSD, but that is not delved into too much. He owes a lot of money to a local loan-shark, and Russell goes to pay his debt. On the way home, he gets in a car accident, he was drunk, and there’s a fatality in the other car, so he goes to prison for some time. While he’s away, his brother comes back, his father dies, and his girl leaves him for the local sheriff. Eventually he gets out, but things are not looking good, and his brother has started underground fighting to win money with the assistance of the same local loan shark. Rodney begs for a fight up in the hills of New Jersey, and he and the loan shark head up there, successfully throw the fight, but then run into trouble with the local meth-dealer, fight-coordinator, and all around tough-guy jerk. Russell then has to determine what happened, and get justice.
It’s a bleak story, there’s not really any happy in this movie what-so-ever. The entire thing is depressing. Russell is a good guy, but cannot seem to catch a break. The movie is well done, Director Scott Cooper (he also directed Crazy Heart, and man, did I hate that movie) gets some great subtle performances out of his stars, and makes that area look really beautiful, but still bleak. It is the cast of this movie that makes it more than it could be, because really - a ton of 80s action movies had this plot.
- Woody Harrelson plays Harlan DeGroat, a complete sociopathic monster of a person. He’s terrifying and brutal, with no cause. Harrelson plays that perfect, but it does seem like something he has done before. He’s threatening because he’s got no remorse, and I found myself completely uncomfortable every time he was on screen – and that is established in the first 10 minutes of the movie in a scene that has nothing to do with anything else, it is exclusively character development for Harlan.
- Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, and honestly, I thought he was better in this than in American Hustle, but that may just be because this role is a little more subtle. Russell is a man determined to do the best with what he’s been given, which is not a lot. He does what he can to keep his family safe, despite the situation around them. There is one scene in particular where he finally gets to talk to his girl after getting out of prison that is small, but perfectly played.
- Casey Affleck plays Rodney Baze, and does an amazing job of losing it every minute, but trying not to let it show. He is slowly going insane, and cannot acclimate to life back from war. He takes up the fighting because he doesn’t know what else to do, but struggles to take a dive when instructed, because he shuts off during the fight. He also has one amazing scene in particular, where Rodney attempts to explain to Russell what he’s dealing with mentally now that he’s back, and it’s heartbreaking.
- Zoe Saldana plays Lena Taylor – the only woman in this movie. She does a great job in the few scenes she has, she does love Russell, but once she leaves him, does so because she wants to do what is best for her. That scene on the bridge with the two of them is really good on both parts. It’s better than I’ve seen her in a while, and more subtle than I’ve seen her in a while.
- Sam Shepard shows up in this movie to play Sam Shepard as the uncle. He has very few scenes, he takes Russell hunting, in a scene that parallels Rodney’s final fight in a very interesting way. I am sure the symbolism is very important, but I didn’t catch all of it. The movie seemed to be very serious about intercutting the two scenes, so I’m sure the symbolism was there.
- Willem Dafoe plays John Petty, the local loan shark who knows better than to get involved with the ‘hill people’, but finally caves to Rodney’s begging and takes him up to New Jersey to fight. It’s not really anything you haven’t seen him do before, and it’s probably more subtle than you’ve seen him in a while also. This whole movie is subtle, excepting for the hunting/fight sequence – maybe that’s why I didn’t get the symbolism, everything else was so subtle.
- Forest Whitaker plays Chief Wesley Barnes, who Lena hooks up with after leaving Russell. He is doing a strange accent choice, which may or may not be accurate – but is not subtle, so that’s two unsubtle things. He has the bad fortune of having to tell Russell that Rodney is missing, and that they’re not really sure what they can do about the crazy mountain people up in the mountains of New Jersey.
So you can go ahead and count me as naïve to the fact that 1) there were mountains in New Jersey, and 2) apparently those mountains are filled with crazy meth-cooking underground-fighting hillbillies. I suppose that area begins to roll into the Appalachian mountains. In any case, this movie is well-crafted, but super bleak. I am sure the Statham direct to DVD version would have focused more on the fighting and the revenge, and been an action movie – in fact, I’m pretty sure a movie like that already exists somewhere. This is about the performances, and they’re good, but I wouldn’t call the movie enjoyable.
5 out of 10 – lost points for everything Harrelson’s character does – including shooting up between his toes and forcing a woman to deep-throat a hot dog – yes, that happens. Gained points for the one moment of happiness between Lena and Russell before the movie gets going. Lost points for the hunting/skinning/butchering of the deer scene, I don’t care how much you intercut it with the fight and make the two scenes parallel – I don’t want to see that.
Bonus Video 1: Columbiana – a vengeance actioner with Zoe Saldana that is much less subtle. Plus, Maori-New Zealander Cliff Curtis plays a South American.
Bonus Video 2: Statham’s most recent with James Franco, because it is similar.