The movie has an opening scene that takes place at a drive-in with a nut job played by Woody Harrelson, smacking a woman around. He then beats up a guy up that tries to help her. The film playing is Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train and at times, it feels like this movie is a meat train. One meathead after another comes onto the screen with the usual clichés: an Iraqi war vet who is dealing with issues, somebody borrowing money and losing bets on the ponies, an older brother that tries to help, a dying parent, accidental car accidents while drinking and driving, working double-shifts at the mill to make a better life, etc.
Scott Cooper’s first film was an interesting character study of an aging country singer (Crazy Heart). His second movie shows us that this former actor…really just cares about giving good actors interesting scenes. The problem with that is a narrative that makes this movie unsure of what kind of picture it is intended to be.
It’s visually stunning, too. We get great shots of a dying Pennsylvania town – the steel mills billowing smoke, dilapidated homes and rusty cars (well, except for Casey Affleck’s sweet muscle car; there’s always at least one character that has one in this type of movie; in this, there were two).
Affleck has come a long way as an actor that had a bit part in Good Will Hunting (he was good in Gone Baby Gone and a few other films).
Woody Harrelson has shown he can play a good tough guy, but the problem with this character is it becomes Natural Born Deer Hunters. It is similar to many films, but with such an outstanding cast, you end up letting a lot of that slide. Even a scene that you would see in a Filmmaking 101 class (it involves a deer being hunted, edited with Affleck preparing to fight).
Zoe Saldana and Forest Whitaker aren’t given much to do (well, Whitaker does try his hand at a bizarre voice).
Christian Bale is convincing as the caring older brother to Affleck, and great son and boyfriend, working long days at the mill. Yet you’d be better off watching him in a similar profession in The Machinist. But I digress.
Oh, I almost forgot about the most interesting character. He’s a local bookie played by Willem Dafoe. He’s always eating greasy food, and looking rather greasy, but it’s interesting how he seems to care about Bale and Affleck, instead of just barking at them about how much money he’s owed.
Once Bale goes into the Appalachian mountains to try to find his brother, the movie really goes off the rails. Every decision each character makes doesn’t follow logic or seem the slightest bit realistic. One scene where they go into a crack den was poorly done for about 10 reasons.
I also wondered if you can “take a dive” in bare knuckle bouts where nobody really knows the people involved. This isn’t Pulp Fiction, where Bruce Willis was playing a highly ranked heavyweight contender.
Cooper, who also co-wrote the movie, certainly tried to get that Quentin Tarantino or Cormac McCarthy vibe going.
Bale is a terrific actor (although some lighting guys may disagree), and the rest of the cast is solid. We even see the legendary Sam Shepard as the uncle who is deadly with a rifle (just as he was in Mud). In a few weeks you’ll see him again with Meryl Streep (I wished he had a rifle in that to shoot her, but that’s another story for another review).
It’s strange that I’m giving this a better review than Homefront. They’re the same type of movie, but it just goes to show that with a talented cast, instead of a Jason Statham, or Steven Seagal beating up drug dealers, it’s at least more fun to watch real thespians. At least Homefront is upfront about what kind of picture it is. This movie comes off as pretentious indie art at times, but I have to admit – it kept me entertained. For that reason, it gets 2 ½ stars out of 5.