In The Jacket Jack confronts Dr. Becker outside the doctor’s church.
Jack tries to run away from the asylum, but is pursued by Dr. Lorenson.
Jack at the end of his rope.
In Harsh Times Jim gropes a female at gunpoint in a way that suggests the sexual humiliation of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib.
Stoically, Jim inserts a turkey baster into his penis and flushes his bladder with saline in order to beat a drug test.
This scene of children playing outside Jim’s apartment is perhaps the only moment in Harsh Times that could be described as light or happy, and it seems to be a metaphor for the increasing Hispanicization of the United States.
An Orwellian diagram: do the conflicting arrows lead toward mental health or away from it?
Jim and Mike spend their days drinking, stealing, and getting high.
Jim irons his dress shirt with military precision.
Applying for an office job, Mike discovers that one of his old gang buddies already works there. What happens when an underclass, raised in the streets and forced early into crime, makes its inevitable way into the system? This interesting question is raised by Harsh Times but regrettably not explored.
Jim and Mike smoke crack.
Peace of mind is only possible, briefly, in Mexico; but Ayer’s romanticization of poverty is suspect.
Flying into rage, Jim threatens to shoot Marta after she reveals to him that she is carrying his child.
Jim tries to sell a handgun to his friend Toussant.
“God” is a gun in a blood-soaked hand.
Mike returns to Sylvia, profoundly shaken, and she accepts him back.
The role of religion in society is central to both The Jacket and Harsh Times. Jack Starks in The Jacket is portrayed as a Christ figure, crucified by a society that has misinterpreted religion itself by focusing only on greed, power and violence. In contrast, the pious, self-righteous Dr. Becker is convinced that he is doing God’s work by torturing convicted killers to death. “Maybe God will pick up where the medicine leaves off,” he tells Jack, who responds, “Are you sure you know where to find him?” The Jacket offers a frightening vision of a society in which passive belief is no longer considered enough. In this way, the script alludes to the end-of-days fervor of the Evangelicals, whose most radical exponents have spoken on TV (on mainstream cable news shows as well as Christian-network programs) about the need for Christians to act out against “sin” wherever they see it or else fear the Lord’s wrath on Judgment Day. I view such machinations on behalf of God’s justice as negative proof of faith and belief. That is, similar to the way Dr. Becker sadistically “plays God,” contemporary Christian activists who wage war on abortion clinics or advocate the forced conversion of Muslim countries into “Christian democracies” are clearly not people of superior faith but people who have less of it. No longer content to allow God to mete out his own justice or no longer absolutely certain that he will or even can, they now view it as their duty, in this world and through their own power, to bring about the judgment of God as they interpret it. In this vein, most neo-fascist survivalist groups, including the U.S. terrorists responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing, have been militantly Christian.
It would seem that the current popularity of Evangelical Christianity lies precisely in its insistent return to the most primitive of religion’s magic-thinking, tribal, obsessive-compulsive tendencies — superstition, the irrational power of the symbolic, the literalization of Scripture and other relics, etc. — all of which emerge as palliatives in a society given over to stress, persistent “amber alerts,” and the general uncertainty of survival. Moreover, in all of this the Evangelicals are not very different from Islam at its most jihadist. Indeed, any religion that wishes to thrive today must become a religion of war, must present itself around some kind of “burning bush,” in order to overcome the widespread erosion which scientific enlightenment has wrought (however unintentionally) against the public life of faith. We have arrived at a moment in social-historical evolution when, given the choice between progressing beyond religion or skulking back toward some primal, Dark Ages moment, Christianity has chosen the latter path with a vengeance. At one point in The Jacket, as Jack confronts Dr. Becker in front of the doctor’s Protestant church, Becker desperately insists that he was only trying to help the disturbed patients who ended up dying under his care. “You’re haunting yourself, old man,” Jack tells him. The greater the misapplication and misuse of social power, the stronger the need for “fixes” of pious redemption.
Harsh Times takes place in a less sanctimonious world. Jim says of himself at one point, “I am a soldier of the Apocalypse,” justifying the mayhem which he has wreaked in the Middle East and which he intends to wreak on Colombian villages in the future. But if Jim is portrayed as religious — alongside his affinity for violence, killing, drugs and indiscriminate sex — there is a cynical side to his penchant for calling on God. God exists only as long as he is on Jim’s side, only as long as he can be used to justify Jim’s excessive self-will and power-tripping. At another point, while speeding out of control down the freeway, Jim bellows, “Fuck you, God! You ain’t got the fucking balls to take my ass!” The wrathful warrior God — the only kind that makes sense to Jim, or the only kind he has been inculcated with, as a young white male in these early years of the millennium — is himself a creature of his own violence, and can presumably be bested with superior violence, superior wrath.
Finally, “God” is just one more old white man whom Jim has tried to scam, or whom he has dealt with confrontationally or obsequiously on a daily basis (Agent Richards; the polygraph expert). Having murdered so many people, Jim correctly assumes, at least by Old Testament standards, that his own power is partially, by definition, equal to God’s. At the film’s end, when he is begging Mike to shoot him, he says to Mike, “It’s just you, me and God” — significantly uttering the word “God” while we see a close-up of the blood-smeared gun which he places in Mike’s hand. To Jim, for whom power is itself a religion and religion is adhered to precisely because of its “bad-ass” Medieval connotations (punishing people for their perceived wrongdoings, sending people to Hell, assuming a show of omnipotence, etc.), it is entirely appropriate to see God as a firearm.
Daily life in L.A. — where random murders are shown to be routine — is nearly as fatalistic as the war zone about which Jim still has nightmares. Yet, if only because life is so difficult and deadly for everyone, Jim is expected all the more to just “get over” his wartime experiences. No one in Harsh Times feels safe. One of the film’s subplots concerns Jim’s efforts to sell a stolen pistol to various friends of his; although no one can afford the three hundred dollars to buy it, they all admire it greatly and express a keen desire to have it for their protection. In this sense, we see that warrior culture has become universalized. Even Sylvia is a kind of soldier, “uniformed” as an attorney in a classy suit-dress when we first meet her: “I have a court appearance,” she explains, practically with a thousand-yard stare.
This toughness of the female characters is a motif of Harsh Times — a number of them, including Sylvia, have their boyfriends’ names tattooed ornately on their backs. According to director Ayer, this is “something you’re gonna see in the ’hood, something that happens.” [open endnotes in new window] At one point, fed up with Mike lying to her, Sylvia tells him: “I’d rather you hit me.” Street-gang symbology and behavior — rather than being confined to a teen underclass subculture — persist in adults who have already entered the well-policed zones of the social order as such. Intriguingly, Harsh Times poses the sociological question of what happens when a whole generation of urban “gang-bangers,” raised largely in the streets and outside the law, makes its way into the corporate work force, as some of them will do and surely have done already. Even so, Jim finds that he still cannot exist in contemporary United States because of the more extreme nature of what he was exposed to overseas, or perhaps because of a greater fragility on his part, which he conceals behind bravado and a learned code of macho behavior.
Likewise, Dr. Lorenson in The Jacket seems to suffer from a kind of battle fatigue. Trying to treat men who have been locked up (with the key thrown away) has numbed her nearly beyond all empathy and made her close in upon herself; again, we see that she reaches out to Jack only very warily. She asks him, at one point, what 2007 will be like, and he tells her, “Not much different from now ... at least for someone like me,” meaning someone who has seen combat and also someone who is considered pathological.
Everything is unstable and on the verge of falling apart. Goodbyes, in particular, are difficult and painful in The Jacket: they play as moments where someone is leaving and most likely never coming back. (One close-up of Kelly Lynch waving from behind a stained-glass window reflecting a cloudy sky seems to be a tribute to a similar shot in Meshes of the Afternoon , a film about circularity and eternal recurrence, directed by pioneering feminist surrealist filmmaker Maya Deren.)
“There is another reality, of which you are unaware”: this could be the motto of both protagonists, Jack and Jim; Jack in his after-life, supernatural mysticism, and Jim in his more prosaic commerce with covert ops and military secrets. We are torn between an awareness that as citizens, we do not fully know the truth about everything our government is doing and an uncertainty about whether or not we even want to know, whether we can “handle the truth” — the memorable cry from A Few Good Men (1992), a very different kind of military film about the abuse of institutionalized power and the cheapness of individual lives. In the process, we slip more and more into widespread societal repression, a syndrome to which both of these veteran heroes fall victim. Peacetime society not only does not want to know what they did in the war but wants actively to forget and repress the war itself as if it never happened in the first place. ATTACK PROTEST reads one particularly Orwellian sign posted in a therapy room of the hospital in The Jacket. And, as one character from that film cynically puts it,
As one of the asylum inmates in The Jacket poses the issue:
Our current lives are obsessed with income and cut-throat competition, the empty tokens of status and consumerism “at best,” grueling daily survival at worst. The characters in Harsh Times are particularly concerned with outward signs of material success, far more so than with any sense of their inner lives. For the men it is hard to say whether economic or biological determinism has the upper hand. They are given to spewing drunkenly, “We’re men, right? This is what men do,” or “We’re dogs, we’ve got each other’s back” — affirming among themselves a sense of entitlement which the world is not always ready to extend. Complaining that their job interviews are not going well, Jim says, with characteristic psychopathic aggression, “Next time, just fuckin’ slap ’em around, get some respect!” “Yeah,” Mike agrees, “pack the Nine [a nine-millimeter automatic gun].” It’s both poignant and scary that the two men feel they can only recover their individual will through adolescent fantasies of using naked brutality to get what they want. A scene that was written for Harsh Times’ script but never shot sheds even more light on this, as Ayer describes it:
I'm not surprised that the increasingly corporate heads at Sundance recoiled in horror from a scene where naked thuggery rears up in an echt-corporate setting, but this scene might have been the most important one in the film. Not only would it have illumined the difficulty warriors sometimes experience in re-adjusting to peacetime society (and how this becomes all of society’s problem), but it would have been a startling metaphor for how in the United States the membrane between clean and dirty work, thuggery and legitimate business, is already thin. Even crime is simply a reification of that work ethic underpinning all human industry. “Not a bad day’s work,” Mike says, appraising his and Jim’s stolen haul approvingly. In fact, crime equals a work ethic plus an illusion of subjectivity and freedom, a shortcut through that thicket of intersubjective social life that leaves Jim and Mike feeling like machine parts.
Only in Mexico is an experience of peace and freedom depicted as even possible — the simple life of the Mexican peasants, who live in shacks with no running water but who speak in spontaneous poetry and are close to unspoiled nature, is set apart from the hectic materialism of the United States. Is it patronizing — or worse yet, racist — to attach a kind of nostalgic charm to a barely subsistent way of life? One must always be suspect of the romanticization of poverty on the subcontinent when conspicuous consumption at its most blatant lies right across the restricted border. In one of her characteristic earthy-mystical moments Marta tells Jim, “When you are gone, your image in my mind sustains to me,” to which the cynical rationalist Jim obtusely responds, “Try eating.” His assumption, coming from a land of plenty, is that she always has food readily available, which may or may not be true. However, what the Mexican characters lack in material well-being, they seem to gain in psychological health. Their way of life is seen not as one of random moments but as a kind of continuity, a whole cloth sundered only by the violence of Americans; whereas American life is seen as being mortgaged, again and again, to fleeting instants of immediate gratification.
Harsh Times’ racialist overtones are unmistakable. Although Jim does seem drawn to the escape Marta provides from the grubby demands of materialism, he also makes racist and sexist references to “Mexican chick voodoo.” Even more tellingly, he exclaims angrily, “I bet it’s cause I’m white!” when the LAPD rejects his application, expressing the idea, commonly held among racist whites, that white people are being kept down in the U.S. through “affirmative action”-type social programs. We know that in the service Jim killed Arabs and, as virtually the only embodiment of young white manhood in the film, he is also shown terrorizing Asians and Hispanics, including, by the end of the film, his best friend Mike and his girlfriend Marta. The scenes where Jim holds a gun to Marta’s throat and then, later, to Mike’s temple — with obvious neocolonial power lines drawn around a white man terrorizing persons of color — recall the physical and psychological abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. In both cases, Jim’s violent reaction is completely incommensurable with what has provoked it. In fact, both Marta and Mike are reaching out to Jim at just these moments: Marta has just told him that she is carrying his child, while Mike is trying to caution Jim about the huge drug deal he is planning. In Jim’s final neocolonial rampage he guns down four Hispanic males before being shot by one of the dealers while trying to drive away. Indeed, almost as if by supernatural design, the bullet unerringly penetrates the taillight of Jim’s speeding car, the back seat, the front seat, and then Jim’s spinal column, blasting apart the extended metaphor of car-as-armor which has been so central and recurrent in the film.
“I am going to lose my life one day, why not at the hands of the man I love?” Marta tells Jim in Mexico, and it is a courageous, poignant challenge, issued symbolically by the entire Third World itself, in the shadow of the United States and dependent on unstable, often fickle and self-interested U.S. support. There is otherwise an absence of feminist awareness in Harsh Times, coming even from the female characters themselves. Sylvia is an interesting character whom one wishes were more developed by Harsh Times’ script. Ayer has called her an “almost thankless role.” In this, the female characters are both reducible, again, to social types who act according to their given roles and options. One senses that Ayer wants, on one hand, to romanticize Sylvia and Mike's union as being somehow exceptional but also to make them generically true to a macho Latin culture in which women, even a college-educated lawyer like Sylvia, are supposed to submit routinely to the will of their men. Significantly, too, in the Mexican sequence, Toussant notices Marta and her mother scrubbing clothes on a rock by the river and asks Jim and Mike, “Hey, shouldn’t we be helping them?” to which Mike responds: “We’re men, they know we don’t do that shit.” An unconscious reason for imperialism is tapped into, here, in that European male colonial settlers had, for centuries, sought comfort in the more traditionally-based customs of native populations, customs which the Enlightenment had already begun to render problematic within white European culture itself.
But the cultural exchanges go both ways,. In this sense, the ending of Harsh Times — Mike’s mercy-killing of Jim — can be read as an allegory of the increasing and perhaps inevitable Hispanicization of the United States. According to national surveys, Hispanics are the only segment of the U.S. population currently reproducing at rates sufficient to replenish their own numbers in the coming generations. The birth rates of all the other ethnicities, especially whites, are falling off and in decline. Although diverse in their own backgrounds, nations of origin, beliefs and customs, Hispanic Americans may yet outlive white America’s late-imperial obsession with entitlement and the disastrous wars and foreign policy blunders this obsession has led to. “You’re always doing stupid shit, I gotta fix it,” Mike shrieks, trying to work himself up to be able to end his now-paralyzed friend’s misbegotten life. “You want me to fix your fuckin’ head once and for all?” Mike's words ring true on a symbolic level, as the moment when colonized minorities come to awareness of the fact that they must do the dirty work for and clean up after the “bad-brained” imperialists, dead-ended in power and corruption. The touching shots of Hispanic children playing in the street outside Jim’s L.A. apartment — some of the only light-hearted and hopeful moments in this very dark film — can also be read as an image of an increasingly non-white U.S. future.
It is impossible to lose oneself or take pleasure in Maybury’s depiction of various hells-on-earth. Partly this is because The Jacket is a superior film artistically to Harsh Times, surer of its tone and development, even when that tone is nuanced and that development decidedly non-linear. Maybury limits any raucous pyrotechnics to a few key scenes, instead allowing dialogue-free passages and deceptively tranquil long shots to bring out the alienation of his characters and the sinister tone of the film in general. In contrast, Harsh Times often gets caught in the cross-hairs of its own ambition. There is, to be sure, the kernel of a much better film buried within it. Like many Sundance movies by young writer-directors, it feels at times like an overdeveloped project, the script reworked and rewritten again and again according to suggestions from committees, until the filmic end result seems both busy and lacking any spontaneity. (This problem afflicts many would-be filmmakers today when films are extremely expensive to make: knowing they may not get a second shot at the director’s chair, they tend to throw everything but the kitchen sink into a pet project.) In spite of what Ayer has said about not being flashy, the movie twitches with unnecessary shock cuts and glorified film-school moments; every mood is heavily underscored. A more subtle, concise director might have allowed his bleak urban landscape and the behavior of his characters to speak for themselves. But as it is, many of the characters in Harsh Times spew such constant verbiage that they belie any sense of isolation or depression which Ayer seems to suggest is their abiding state. To an extent, Ayer’s first script, Training Day, was similarly gimmicky but benefited from a better sense of pacing by the director as well as the charisma of star Denzel Washington. Nonetheless, as a kind of Geiger counter of veterans’ issues, both The Jacket and Harsh Times raise numerous interesting points.
The military in general is famous for saying that it “owns” its men — mind, body and spirit. Even after leaving the army, both Jack Starks and Jim Luther Davis find themselves controlled and exploited. Jack’s torture in the asylum is like a reification of the way he was sent over to the Gulf to die in the first place. Retroactively, Jack’s awareness that his life was always already cheap and disempowered leads him to see himself — in his hellish after-life limbo — as someone whom society has flushed away since he's now filling a wretched bed in a broken-down, forgotten ward. Likewise, in Harsh Times, some of Jim’s abuses are inflicted on him externally, as when the federal agents make him choose between his mission and his planned marriage to Marta, a kind of psychological torture that feels designed simply to test Jim’s unswerving loyalty.
More often, though, we see that Jim is self-destructive, reckless with his own well-being, like a lingering after-effect of his conditioning as a soldier expected to put his life on the line at all times. In order to beat a urinalysis drug-screen, he guzzles vinegar straight from the bottle (this nauseates Mike), then, incredibly, inserts a turkey-baster into his penis to flush out his tainted bladder with saline solution (he nonchalantly calls this “a little trick I learned in the service”). After grimacing and groaning in pain, Jim buries the agony of this auto-catheterization with the stoical, matter-of-fact statement, “That was . . . unpleasant.” We see that Jim’s extreme conditioning as a machine or a kind of animal sets him definitively apart from the civilian (if not the civilized) world. Ayer has said:
In this, Jim also functions as a stand-in for the United States in these complex times: What are the issues that threaten us the most, how are we to define our national security and what are the most effective ways of achieving it? There are few clear-cut answers to these questions, and much of the rhetoric swirling around the debates stems from investments, both financial and ideological, in one sort of agenda or another. Thus, contemporary United States could be said to be, in some ways, as self-deluded and as keyed in to short-term fixes as Jim.
Ultimately, veterans’ issues should transcend partisanship no matter what ideologies underpin them. Jack, the “do-gooder” hero who would have to be defined as liberal in his efforts to expose the corrupt asylum for its illegal abuses, and Jim, who would have to be defined as nothing less than a right-wing hawk, are both more or less doomed. The fact that they both die violently and young says much about how we unconsciously view the future. Added, then, to depicting poverty, isolation, mutilation, battle fatigue and post-traumatic stress disorder, both these films acknowledge as well that the returning veteran is plagued by loss of self, shown in wrenching moments when the dazed soldier awakens to wonder who he even is, and what he has really been fighting for.