A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this movie isn't for kids in any way, shape, or form. Full of bloody violence, drug use, lawlessness, and physical abuse, it follows the experiences of a traumatized Afghanistan war veteran and draws connections between what happened to him during combat and his behavior back home in Los Angeles. Weapons include guns of all kind, knives, and grenades; the brutal violence results in gaping wounds and lots of blood. Characters smoke cigarettes and do drugs (meth, coke, pot), and men treat women badly (lying to them as well as taunting and abusing them). Language is incessant -- there are at least 200 uses of "f--k," plus assorted other profanity.
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What's the story?
HARSH TIMES focuses on a few delirious days in the life of Gulf War veteran Jim Davis (Christian Bale). After returning home to L.A., the ex-Army Ranger yearns for a bit of quiet. At first, it seems like he'll find this peace with Marta (Tammy Trull), who lives across the border in Mexico. But Jim's nightmares follow him wherever he goes, and his friends admire his increasingly outrageous behavior. Jim is a product of the low-income, hopeless, and mostly generic "'hood," and he's absorbed its low expectations and cruelty. Though Jim's best friend Mike (Freddy Rodriguez) tells his wife Sylvia (Eva Longoria) that he's passing out his resume, he and Jim are actually out carousing, harassing Jim's ex, and committing crimes. Jim eventually gets an interview with the Department of Homeland Security. When his potential new boss sees Jim's tendency to bully and intimidate his fellow recruits (as well as cheat on the lie detector test), he thinks he's found the perfect macho man agent, ruthless and unafraid to hurt others. Jim calls himself a "soldier of the apocalypse," and that makes him perfect for routing out criminals in Colombia.
Is it any good?
As its title suggests, Harsh Times is a dark, rough movie. It makes the case that Jim's combat experience is of a piece with his life as a young man in urban Los Angeles. As bad as Jim and Mike might want to be, the film insists that their ugliness and mischief are small-time compared to the havoc wreaked by socially approved bodies, from the cops to corporations to the government. Inside these hallowed institutions, Harsh Times shows, men swagger and commit crimes under the color of law and the approval of their fellows.
The film sets up all Jim's confrontations and options in racially marked terms -- Marta, Mike, the "homeboys," and the new job all set him off as lonely, white, and hypermasculine, still feeling bereft and still looking for acceptance. While it doesn't fully pursue the point, Harsh Times at least raises the specter of racism and sexism in the culture that made a man like Jim.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the connections between Jim's combat experience and his frustrations back home. How are they linked? How does his behavior reflect what happened to him overseas? While he's admired by his friends for his "macho" behavior, how does the movie also show that he's troubled? What does Marta represent for Jim? How would you compare the romances between Jim and Marta and Mike and Sylvia? Which of the characters represent security, and which represent chaos?
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