Here’s the story of two brothers living in West Virginia. One is a hard working factory man named Russell, played by Christian Bale. The other is Rodney, a younger, directionless knucklehead, played by Casey Affleck. While the wise brother is aiming for a future with his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), Rodney takes up amateur boxing. After walking away with a tenderized face and a few extra dollars, Rodney begs his manager (Willem Dafoe) to arrange “one last fight.” It would involve a match in the Appalachian Mountains, with fighters who are described as “scary.”
We know already it is, as we’ve already met one of the brawlers. His name is Harlan DeGroat and you can say he has the kind of intense, untrusting, world-weary face that matches his name. DeGroat is portrayed by Woody Harrelson as a rabid dog of a man, just waiting for his next opportunity to pummel anyone into a puddle of blood.
The opening scene introduces us to DeGroat in an ingenious fashion: the camera pulls back to reveal we are watching a movie being shown at a drive-in, while the movie we paid to see begins. We watch as DeGroat torments, then abuses, his date, as shocked patrons watch in horror. Appropriately enough, the movie they’re watching is Midnight Meat Train (which never received a wide release, drive-in theater or otherwise, but never mind). From the opening scene, the story announces how brutal it is, both in the way the characters behave and what will become of them. This is a world as inviting as a rusty razor blade.
Everyone in the cast delivers stand-out work but I liked the performances more than the movie, which is just an overly familiar revenge tale. This is one of those “family means everything, blood is thicker than water” yadda-yadda-yadda pictures where a righteous man broods thoughtfully before deciding to take action and kick butt. As directed and co-written by Crazy Heart filmmaker Scott Cooper, you couldn’t ask for better actors and their work is worth seeing. But the screenplay is tired. Audience members could follow along with a Revenge Movie Checklist and cross off each cliché as the movie progresses. Bad thing happens to likable character? Check. Police unable to help? Check. Hero has a 10-mile stare, indicating he has murder on his mind? Check and check.
Harrelson and Saldana shine the brightest and hit dramatic notes previously unseen. If you remember Harrelson starring in Natural Born Killers, you still won’t be prepared for how frightening he is here. Saldana has a memorably heartbreaking scene with Bale, where they tenderly confront each other in secret. As can be expected, Bale is first-rate. His accent occasionally wanders, which isn’t a problem when the acting is this good. Affleck, Dafoe and Sam Shephard also give their roles a lived-in feel.
The film has a similarly washed out visual palette and tone to Killing Them Softly and is appropriately book-ended by Pearl Jam’s Release, which reflects the characters’ desperation and longing. If only the story weren’t so predictable. The final scene should come as a shock but instead feels inevitable. Only a twist of fate for Bale’s character early on offers any surprise, though the screenplay soon abandons this subplot.
In portraying the lower class, drug and crime-infested lives of those living in the woods, Winter’s Bone did all of this far better. That film was scarier, grittier, had more heart and always surprised. Here, we watch as one formulaic scene follows another like clockwork.
Score: ** (1-5 Star Scale)