The Baze brothers are very different people with Russell (Bale) spending his days working double shifts in the local steel mill while Rodney (Affleck) rotates in and out of Iraq with the National Guard and pays back debtors for his silly gambling. Their lives are on diverging paths but neither of them will ever change and in honesty it seems neither of them has the capacity to do so. When Rodney disappears Russell must do everything in his power to find him bringing into question his moral courage and his resolve.
Opening with a Pearl Jam song called Release you are instantly made aware of the plight of Russell’s work in the mill and life in America during Obamas 2008 presidential campaign. There is a malaise that echoes deep in the song, and the moment, with Bale’s portrayal of a local steel mill worker right on the money. The subtlety in Bale’s performance is exactly why he is considered the leading actor of his generation and you feel every beat of Russell’s broken heart as it all falls down around him, he is a joy to watch here.
There is an authenticity in evidence that undoubtedly goes against the normal portrayal of the American dream and its grittiness is personified in Harrelson’s Harlen DeGroat. He is a viciously aggressive and remorseless figure representing the dirty underbelly of American life, reminding us how good Harrelson can be with the right material. Affleck is impressive, as he always is, with one particular scene in the family home stressing the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on young men who go to war.
There are clear parallels with the Deer Hunter in reflecting the impact of PTSD on men returning home from war and maybe that is what Cooper was seeking to do. Reminding America and the world that maybe we haven’t come all that far over the last 30 years morally and culturally is a worthwhile exercise, but it always feels as though there is something missing. It should be added that the fight scenes throughout are unapologetically realistic reminding the audience just how brutal and pointless these men’s lives really are.