copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

Post-Iraq cinema — the veteran hero
in The Jacket and Harsh Times

by Justin Vicari


With increased numbers of servicemen and women returning to U.S. society from war zones in the Middle East and elsewhere, the problem of the veteran’s re-assimilation to civilian life has become the stuff of timely cinematic drama. There has been a spate of recent Hollywood films about Iraq, including Jarhead (2004), Rendition (2007), In the Valley of Elah (2007) and Stop-Loss (2008). Most of these films take the somewhat equivocal stance of being “pro-soldier/anti-war.” One either believes in the Iraq war or one doesn’t, and it’s only humane to be “pro-soldier” when considering the enormous risk these fighting men and women have placed themselves in under the name of a dubious agenda so ill-defined and often mismanaged by the Bush/Cheney administration. But are these films really helping any kind of cause? Or are they symptomatic of a tendency, already becoming deeply ingrained in our media culture, to fictionalize the real and turn it into a kind of escapism that assuages guilt while changing nothing?

Unlike Vietnam cinema, whose first important exemplars — The Deer Hunter (1978), Coming Home (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979) — were not made until several years after the U.S. pullout from Saigon, Iraq war cinema has kept pace with the war itself. This mania for being current, which characterizes our present time, often leads to muddled, undigested statements that mirror the distracted/distracting way in which the real war has been prosecuted and covered. From day one, the invasion and occupation of Iraq have already been promoted, shamefully, as a kind of mass-escapist entertainment (escapism from fears of 9/11 and doubts about U.S. world dominance) and milked for opportunities for jingoistic political spectacle. In a conflict where reporters have been embedded and more or less de-fanged, and where photographs of potentially demoralizing U.S. casualties have been criminalized by fiat in the Bush era, we probably need more documentary, and less fictional, evidence about the Iraq experience.

To a great degree Iraq differs from all other “official” wars that the United States has waged, in that many of the coalition soldiers are well-paid contractors who have signed up, not with the army, but with private military firms. In his landmark study, Corporate Warriors (2003), P. W. Singer asks whether the recent proliferation of these private firms, with their tendency to exploit warfare for profit and stock-option speculation, is eroding our trust in social institutions. He writes,

“Politics are now directly and openly linked with economic interests (in normative terms, a return to a tymocratic or money-based system of governance), which can lead to breakdown of respect for governmental authority, and also delegitimizes its right to rule. Or, as one analyst described [it] in more strident terms, ‘These khaki and Brooks Brothers clad mercenaries endorse the idea that power belongs to those who can afford it.’”[1][open endnotes in new window]

Privately contracted armies are like Pandora’s box: once sprung upon us, they are unlikely to go away. Singer’s only real conclusion to the thorny problem of how to provide international security in a complicated globalized marketplace is that changing times require changing ingenuities. But whatever we might think of wars themselves or the people who inevitably profit by them, one constant remains — that the combat veteran continues to have a difficult and traumatic experience. A figurehead of barely commensurable contradictions, trained both to unquestioningly obey all orders from above and also to kill at will, the veteran can become a painful misfit when he must re-learn how to function beyond the military’s strict disciplinary codes. Sometimes he can never re-learn this.

“An employee of a London-based PMF [private military firm] described the motivations that led him to join the [privatized military] industry: ‘I joined the Army at 18 and left at 42. What else could I do but be a soldier? . . . What choice do I have?’”[2]

If the nineteenth was the century of industrial capitalism and the twentieth the century of advanced, post-industrial capitalism, then the twenty-first century (or at least its first eight years) seem to be an era of “psychotic capitalism,” lacking moral restraint or social conscience. Now single big-grab payoffs are favored over long-term investments, insider trading and illegal deals flourish under cover of respectability, and burnt bridges preempt cultivated business opportunities. The implosion of Wall Street and the investment banking system in the United States (even vaster in implication, perhaps, than the 1929 crash and the ensuing Great Depression) indicate psychotic capitalism writ large, leaving scorched earth rather than arable soil. It is as if the country assumes that whatever crime one can get away with amounts to sound business practice. And again, the effects of gambling with enormous sums of capital, as well as using extreme and potentially criminal methods of reaping and protecting further sums, characterize the privatized military sector, where any multi-millionaire can theoretically buy an army or armed conflict anywhere in the world. As Singer writes,

“In game-theory terms, each interaction with a private actor in the international securities market is sui generis, that is unique, or constituting a class alone. Exchanges take the form of 1-shot games, rather than guaranteed repeated plays.”[3]

No longer beholden to the rational, psychotic capitalism runs amok, loses touch with right and wrong, and mortgages a steady, solid future for the adrenalin-rushing ups and downs of today.

And when the larger society suffers from a kind of mental instability, its individual citizens cannot be far behind, particularly those most burdened by having to do the “dirty work,” so to speak. We know all too well that combat veterans are subject to lingering psychological after-effects, perhaps most notably post-traumatic stress disorder. This diagnosis came to light in the wake of Vietnam but for all intents and purposes is  probably no different than the “shell shock” that afflicted veterans of World War I. Because he can be seen as both an Everyman and an iconoclastic individual set apart from others, the war veteran has had a long history of being both hero and anti-hero in Hollywood cinema. The jaded, vengeful posse in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) are Civil War vets, as is the weary infantryman, Inman (Jude Law), who returns from the front only to sacrifice himself for the good of his community and the woman he loves, Ada (Nicole Kidman), in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain (2003). Cagney’s vicious gangster in The Roaring Twenties (1939) is a World War I doughboy who comes home to an America where he is reviled and denied honest work, while the amoral, emotionally vacant, cold-blooded men who slouch and swagger through the films noirs of the 1940s and 1950s are often veterans of World War II.

Many films argue that a penchant for killing, learned on the battlefield, cannot be unlearned in civilian life; in fact, killing is often the alienated veteran hero’s only entrée into civilian society, as a hired gun. Rainer Werner Fassbinder deconstructed this trope explicitly in The American Soldier (1970), in which a Vietnam vet is hired by a Munich police department to covertly assassinate its public enemies. He mainly kills women and one effeminate homosexual, so that the entire film reads as a surreal statement on how a hyper-macho (sub)culture, inculcated by war but extended into peacetime, seeks to relentlessly purge from itself all vestiges of the detested feminine element. At that film's end, by way of symbolic retribution, the U.S. soldier’s own mother and gay brother inadvertently bring about his doom.

It was World War II that produced what is perhaps the quintessential veteran saga, William Wyler’s ironically titled The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The recipient of numerous Academy Awards, this well-known male-melodrama kaleidoscopes the stories of three returning veterans as they deal with alcoholism, depression, disabilities, and their inability to relate to their families. The film's driving theme is that the soldier’s experience of war is one which he cannot share with civilians who have never “been there.” This overwhelming feeling of isolation threatens the veterans’ stability, sanity, and future potential. The movie is painfully authentic: Harold Russell, one of the lead actors in The Best Years of Our Lives, was a real-life veteran who had lost his hands.

Tom Gregory’s comments about The Best Years of Our Lives are interesting in this regard:

“This is not a film that attempts to wrap up war. It turns its eyes on the returning soldier: lost but hopeful, deflated but not conquered. The nuclear family passes into the Nuclear Age, as salty soldier Al, played by Fredric March, returns to face his son's prodding questions about Hiroshima, along with his wife's whispered telephone calls and mysterious social life. One night while drunk and dancing with his wife, Al starts talking to her like so many ‘dancehall girls’ he must have boogied with during his years in Europe. His wife plays along, repeating what she imagines so many girls replied to his flirtation. There's no denying the war has executed their innocence long ago. In this one scene Hollywood connects the innuendo and incorruptibility of its earlier days to the reality we still see today.”[4]

However uncomfortable some of its scenes might be, The Best Years of Our Lives is nonetheless a kind of whitewash, as Jean-Luc Godard noted. Addressing the “myth of death in American cinema,” Godard establishes a distinction between two different kinds of mise-en-scene — for our purposes here, a crucial distinction.

“All I mean to claim is that the mise-en-scene of To Have and Have Not is better suited than that of The Best Years of Our Lives to convey aberrations of heart and mind, that this is its purpose, whereas the object of the latter is rather the external relationships between people. Compare Wuthering Heights to The Best Years of Our Lives ... and tell me whether the destiny of the modern cinema does not take the same form as it did for the belated partisans of romanticism.” [5a]

It is overt emotionalism, sentimentality, combined with a flat Norman Rockwell-esque portraiture, that undermines the ostensible subject of The Best Years of Our Lives: dehumanization. Of course, those “aberrations of heart and mind” have come to signify our total interest in the arts, to the extent that one could argue they are now as predictable as anything else. But in films about veterans, where there are common elements such as emotional trauma, lingering violence, alienation from the society which the veteran once defended, we can return to Godard’s suggestion that these elements are more powerful when fully internalized by the mise-en-scene rather than externalized as set pieces and soap opera.

Two recent films, John Maybury’s The Jacket (2005) and David Ayer’s Harsh Times (2007), are an object lesson in this distinction. Both look specifically at the plight of Iraq and Gulf war veterans. Both are high-wire balancing acts, nervy, nightmarish, often stomach-turning. They also feel "ripped from the headlines" in an almost semi-inflammatory way. Writer-director Ayer has insisted: “[Harsh Times] isn’t a rap video . . . It’s more realistic.”[5] Likewise, Maybury made these revealing comments about his research for The Jacket:

“…I did go to some of the veterans’ hospitals here. They’re not that much better staffed and supported than the place I portray in my film, and that’s what this is about, actually. It’s how your so-called heroes — my heroes, too, my nephews are fighting in Iraq at the moment — they’re treated like shit when this is all over.”[6]

Aesthetically, the films play out somewhat differently from each other. Harsh Times is a far more conventional action film, and as such, it somewhat blurs the line between critique and exploitation. It makes the viewer complicit in the titillation produced by scenes of violence and macho posturing. In contrast, The Jacket is a comprehensive repudiation of violence on all levels: the violence of war, the violence of crime, the violence of domestic life, and the violence of the criminal justice system. Both The Jacket and Harsh Times mingle genres rather freely. Harsh Times darkens the classic “buddy film” with overtones of gangland noir. More imaginatively, The Jacket blends science fiction and politics with romance and family drama to create a unique and iconoclastic vision of contemporary United States.[7] The Jacket qualifies as science fiction in that it is a time travel film, and also, in a related way, a film about a restless spirit trapped between death and existence. The granddaddy of such films, and by far the most poetic and groundbreaking of them, is probably Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1966), a short film made up not of live action but a series of oddly wistful still photographs. In a motif begun in Marker’s film, subsequent after-life fantasies such as Jacob’s Ladder (1990), The Crow (1994), and Terry Gilliam’s remake of La Jetée, 12 Monkeys (1995), the unfairness of a man’s sudden death causes him to come back to life in a kind of limbo state, attempting to redress some painful cosmic injustice and redeem his own thrown-away life.

In particular, 12 Monkeys parallels and prefigures The Jacket in its use of fatalism. In both films, time travel is used to suggest closed circles of eternal recurrence, in which an Everyman figure struggles with the inability to change the outcome of events. In 12 Monkeys, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent into the past from a post-apocalyptic future in which the remnants of the human race have been driven to live underground after a pandemic. His mission is ostensibly to observe and gather data. But he begins to take it upon himself to try to prevent the disease's spread in the first place, i.e., to change the course of events. However, his interference ensures two things: that the pandemic will occur as it was meant to, and that it will be blamed on someone other than the ones who started it, who are the ones who came to rule in the underground. Why the future would need to go back and ensure that the past will conform to its agenda (again) is less germane than the fact that, regardless of what new elements are tossed into the mix, the course of events remains unalterable. Jack Starks in The Jacket has more success in breaking out of this stifling logic but mainly because he does not set out to save an entire world but only a few people in it. Even then, like James Cole in 12 Monkeys, he has some difficulty escaping his own foreseen and pre-ordained doom.  

Substituting a heightened dystopia for a corrupt or untenable reality is nothing new. Science fiction in general has long been recognized as having an affinity with political and social theory. For example, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) can be read as a veiled critique of the racist Nazi philosophy of subhumans ruled by supermen. If the alien-invasion films of the 1950s were largely covert stagings of anxieties surrounding the Cold War and the atomic bomb, then many sci-fi films of recent years could be deconstructed as allegories of life in an era of perceived disinformation. Superficially these films concern time warps and time travel, and they often take their cue directly and indirectly from Asian cinema’s use of the horror/sci-fi/fantasy genres to explore social disorder.

For example, Hideo Nakata’s Japanese film Ringu (1998) became a cult sensation and was remade as a Hollywood film called The Ring in 2000. In it, the ghost of an abused girl has become a ghost in the machine of technological society, sending her nightmares from beyond the grave in the form of a mysterious video-cassette whose gruesome images kill anyone who watches them within a week’s time. Curiosity triumphs over caution, and one by one the circle of people exposed to the deadly tape increases. Slaves to a culture industry which already indoctrinates them to passively accept what the media presents, the characters are willing, at least at one point, to pay the appointed price for having watched the forbidden tape:

“Why not just let things run its course, are our lives really worth saving? Why don't we let our line die out?”

Having lost hope in the future, the present is ready to shrivel up into the past. Likewise, Dark Water (2005) is a remake of another Nakata film, Honogurai mizu no soko kara (2000). In both versions, a single mother facing dire financial straits moves her young daughter into a rundown apartment that happens to be haunted by the ghost of an orphaned little girl. The past returns to swallow up the mother and daughter when the ghost demands that one of them sacrifice herself to become the dead girl’s playmate in eternity. As Nina K. Martin has written about Honogurai mizu no soko kara:

“… the [economic and emotional] backlash against single working mothers is a global issue. The portrayal, struggle and redemption of [the film’s] female protagonist is contingent on her acquiescing to and embracing an idealized feminine role — the self-sacrificing mother. Visual tensions connote this struggle between the normally clean, safe realms of the home and school, and the invasive ‘dark water’ that floods Yoshimi and Ikuko’s apartment, streaming down walls and relentlessly boring through ceilings. This overwhelming force not only dissolves the barriers between the living and the dead, the safe and the threatened, but it also renders the typically stable walls of the apartment building porous and permeable. The water's intrusion into the security of the home reflects the bleeding of social roles that contemporary Japanese women must face as they juggle work with motherhood.”[8]

Put otherwise: as reification of the heartless demands which capitalism places on the underpaid and overburdened, both versions of the film drive the hard-working, well-meaning mother to ensure her daughter’s safe future by giving up her only and final possession — her own life. The relentless, seeping invasion of the water could also be read as a metaphor for wire-tapping and spying on ordinary citizens within their homes. We see that the most abused victim of psychotic capitalism is identical to the innocent who takes up residence in a haunted house, the poltergeist of which, an ambassador of antimatter, seeks to co-opt the living resident into its own limbo state. Adorno, who detested those genres which passed off horror and murder as entertainment, wrote:

“After the breakdown of the detective story in the books of Edgar Wallace, which seemed by their less rational construction, their unsolved riddles and their crude exaggeration to ridicule their readers, and yet in so doing magnificently anticipated the collective imago of total terror, the type of the murder comedy has come into being. While continuing to claim to make fun of a bogus awe, it demolishes the images of death. It presents the corpse as what it has become, a stage prop. It still looks human and is yet a thing, as in the film ‘A Slight Case of Murder,’ where corpses are continuously transported to and fro, allegories of what they already are. Comedy savors to the full the false abolition of death that Kafka had long before described in panic in the story of Gracchus the hunter ... What the National Socialists perpetrated against millions of people, the parading and patterning of the living like dead matter, then the mass-production and cost-cutting of death, threw its prefiguring shadow over those who felt moved to chortle over corpses.”[9]

Those “living” patterned and paraded “like dead matter” were clearly the Nazi troops themselves, every German man, woman and child subsumed under uniform, armband, ideological straitjacket. Certainly the veterans in both The Jacket and Harsh Times are similarly men for whom life and death have become conflated: already dead or doomed even when they seem to be superficially alive.

Still other examples indicate how political controversies have been explored in recent genre films, mainly science fiction. For example, The Lake House (2006) was adapted from the South Korean film Siworae (2000) by Eun-Jeong Kim and Ji-na Yeo. In it, a couple fall in love even though they are actually living two years apart from each other; they are connected by a “magic” mailbox in which they receive letters written to each other from the past/future. Under the surface of being a harmless, even sappy love story, The Lake House raises issues about what can and cannot be believed or trusted, as well as the fatalistic idea (again) that the past cannot save the future nor vice versa. Similarly, in Premonition (2007), a woman knows that her husband will die in a car accident on a given day but can do nothing to prevent it. Furthermore, she keeps reliving the last day of his life over and over, only to find him alive again the next day and still facing the same imminent danger. (Coincidentally, both The Lake House and Premonition star popular actress Sandra Bullock.) Most tellingly, perhaps, in Déja Vu (2006) and Next (2007), men attempt to go back in time or forward into the future to try to prevent 9/11-type disasters. In all of these films, ordinary people are forced to accept a difficult and inexplicable piece of knowledge at some cost to their sense of peace, order and sanity. The world as they have comfortably come to accept it is revealed to be more chaotic and unstable than they had assumed. They also have the added problem of ultimately being unable to prove this knowledge to those around them, again a possible allegory for a U.S. constituency that has the vague persistent feeling of being lied to about a whole host of issues: election fraud, Enron, Worldcom, torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, the deceptive pretext for the invasion of Iraq, the suspect “friendly-fire” death of serviceman Pat Tillman, and even our possible foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks themselves.           


The Jacket opens during the “Desert Storm” Gulf War of 1991: only minutes after the ceasefire is called, U.S. soldier Jack Starks (Adrien Brody) is shot in the head by an Iraqi boy to whom he has tried to reach out. Next we see him back in the United States, amnesiac and on the road, where he helps a drunken woman, Jean Price (Kelly Lynch), whose truck has broken down and who is passing out in the snow. He also befriends the woman’s neglected child, Jackie (Laura Marano), and significantly gives her his army dog-tags.

Subsequently, in an abrupt turn of events he is framed for the murder of a State Trooper and receives a life sentence in a hospital for the criminally insane, where he falls into the hands of the sinister Dr. Becker (Kris Kristofferson), whose radical treatments involve outright torture. Jack’s mouth is duct-taped, he is strapped into a straitjacket and injected with drugs, then buried alive inside a morgue drawer. The intense panic and claustrophobia is meant either to hurl Jack back upon himself and get him in touch with his “guilt” — or, quite simply, to kill him. The actual effect of Dr. Becker’s tortures is that Jack is sent time-traveling. He leaps into the future — a desultory post-9/11 United States — where he encounters the grown-up Jackie (Keira Knightley). Not recognizing Jack as the man who helped her when she was a little girl, she picks him up on Christmas Eve and brings him home to her rundown apartment. Jackie has become a depressed, lonely alcoholic; we learn that her mother burned to death years ago by passing out with a lit cigarette. (The fact that she brings home Jack, whom she meets as a drifter thumbing a ride and whom she views as a stranger, is meant to indicate self-destructiveness.) Jack finds his old dog-tags among her keepsakes, but when he tries to convince her of who he is, she becomes angry and refuses to believe him, insisting that Jack Starks, like her mother, is dead.

Battling against these baffling circumstances that seem out to destroy him, Jack nonetheless conceives a plan to help Jackie. Knowing that the morgue drawer is his time machine, he submits to the experiments (though he expects they will kill him at some point) in order to keep visiting her in the future. In an obvious catch-22, Jack’s insistence that he has seen the future makes him seem all the more crazy to the asylum's staff, but he slowly wins the trust of the wary but compassionate Dr. Lorenson (Jennifer Jason Leigh). During one of his “trips” in the drawer Jack finally succeeds in confronting Jackie’s mother Jean and convinces her to stop drinking for her daughter’s sake before it is too late. However, just as he has won his victory, he ironically slips on some ice and dies of a head trauma — a moment which Maybury splices together with the original head-wound from the war. The storyline’s convolutions do not end there, however. Seemingly re-resurrected, Jack goes to the future again and encounters a much happier, more well-adjusted and successful Jackie, whose mother is sober and still alive.

All through The Jacket, Jack is little more than a puppet at the mercy of various bewildering and fateful powers. Having already died in vain for his country once, he continues to suffer not as a fallen hero but as a scapegoat, the victim of a kind of absurdist bait-and-karmic-switch. The horrific way he is tortured in his own country is meant to create an interesting note of empathy between U.S. citizens and those who have been profiled, sometimes with a rather broad racial brush, as our “enemies.” When asked why he cast Brody, Maybury told an interviewer, “Because he looks like an Arab ... and it sort of had a nice resonance [with] Guantanamo Bay.” [10] Maybury has also described The Jacket as “a romance that has kind of a subtext about Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.”[11]

What is most fascinating about the simulacrum-world that Jack's restless soul inhabits is that it doubles for the real one that surrounds us every day. “I don’t know what I believe,” Jackie tells him at one point, doubting his claim that he has actually traveled through time; but her admission of skepticism takes on a larger societal resonance. Living in and with two different realities is, again, the untenable position of a society that has lost trust in what its appointed leaders say. Were the torturers at Abu Ghraib acting on orders, or were they “rogue elements?” And if they were the latter, was their behavior tacitly encouraged or condoned? Is torture necessary for our safety, and if so, can that ever justify its unconstitionality, its betrayal of the Geneva Convention? The pain of such questions seeps under the skin of all conscious Americans and turns us against ourselves and each other.

Indeed, the dead-end lives of The Jacket’s characters suggest traumatized, isolated people lacking the will to do anything but drag themselves through their dreary workdays, numbed by booze, nicotine and pills. The film depicts a rabid middle-class concern for public safety, which prompts the dystopian torture of convicted killers with a kind of “eye-for-an-eye” vengeance reminiscent of the Old Testament at its most bloodthirsty. Many script elements connote a social order that seeks to purge all outward symptoms of violence from its individual members, while condoning them within the state apparatus. Outraged, hysterical “law and order” paranoia is everywhere. Thus, when Jack stops to help fix Jean’s truck, she sees him innocently hugging her daughter and immediately assuming that he is a pedophile, she screams at him, “Hey, get your fucking hands off my daughter!” The result is a society where everyone feels lost and frightened, keeping others at arm’s length. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Jack and Jackie share a depressing Christmas dinner of stale baloney sandwiches. In contrast to a more saccharine mainstream film, which would probably exalt this kind of poverty fare as “the true meaning of Christmas,” this scene plays every bit as dismally and uncomfortably as it sounds, and it ends explosively, with a mistrustful Jackie driving Jack from her apartment, out into the cold.

The communities of urban L.A. in David Ayer’s Harsh Times are equally atomized and broken down, and if anything, they are even more spiritually voided and afflicted by poverty and violence. A veteran of the current Iraq war, Jim Luther Davis (Christian Bale), spends most of Harsh Times in a desperate search for identity, security, money, a job. He is really looking for some kind of “peace, love and understanding” though he is far too macho, too drug-addled and stress-disordered to acknowledge this. He divides his time between L.A. and the Mexican village where his girlfriend Marta (Tammy Trull) lives; he hopes to marry her one day. When we first see him, he is sleeping in his car outside Marta’s tumbledown shack, apparently too haunted by nightmares of the war to sleep comfortably in her bed. His dream sequence is tinted the swamp-green of army night-vision goggles; it was filmed with “a mini-DV military night-vision scope,” [12] according to director Ayer. Some of the soldiers are camouflaged in tribal-looking animal pelts with skulls for faces, while Jim wears surreal gloves decorated with skeleton hands. The editing here is reminiscent, in a less avant-garde way, of the violent motorcycle-race montage from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964). Like Scorpio in that film, Jim is seemingly both within the thick of the fray and outside of it, instigating and directing it from the sidelines with a serene, self-satisfied smile — an almost subliminal suggestion of his latent psychosis.

Back in L.A., Jim looks up his best friend Mike Alonzo (Freddy Rodriguez), who is trying to lead a middle-class life with his girlfriend Sylvia (Eva Longoria). She is a successful prosecuting attorney who constantly pressures the slacker-like Mike to get a nine-to-five job. A textbook definition of “bad influence,” Jim takes Mike out on a binge of drinking, drugging, and petty thievery, during which they obsessively cruise the streets in Jim’s new Ford — all he has to show for his military pay. Throughout Harsh Times this car serves as Jim’s armor on wheels, the hard shell he uses to fend off the world.

Jim is hoping to get hired by the LAPD but gets turned down after failing the psychological tests. (Given the LAPD’s documented propensity for violence, this is one of Ayer’s more mordant jokes.) Instead, Jim is courted by the Federal Department of Homeland Security — it turns out they are looking precisely for killers and sociopathic cowboy types to head up a new anti-drug task force in Colombia. “We’re all a little goofy around here,” Senior Agent Richards (J. K. Simmons) tells him. The Colombian task force is a covert operation that may be on behalf of a private military firm. Although Ayer does not specify this, something sinister and conspiratorial is implied by Jim’s recruitment scene. (Mike seems to recognize that Jim has already been fighting for capitalist ventures in the Middle East when he asks at one point, “Who did you kill? Commies?”)

According to P. W. Singer:

“At least seven U.S.-based military companies are active in the ongoing conflict in Colombia. Many claim that these private corporations, such as DynCorp and EAST Inc., ostensibly hired by the U.S. State Department to help in the antidrug effort, are actually going well beyond such tasks, including engagements in counterinsurgency operations for the government.”[13]

Singer goes on:

“The intent of privatized military assistance [in Colombia] is to bypass Congressional oversight and provide political cover to the White House if something goes wrong. ... Although U.S. military personnel are under strict legal restrictions from engaging in counterinsurgency operations, it is clear that the firms are not bound by the same rules. DynCorp’s operations in Colombia entail more than crop dusting, but also engage in combat with the local FARC rebels.” [14]

Balding, paunchy and leather-jacketed, the task force recruiter (Fred Sheehan) literally emerges from the shadows. He says, “You were getting paid to fuck people up,” as an unromantic synopsis of Jim’s service in the Middle East while we look at a series of photographs of a masked, flak-jacketed Jim standing over bodies in what appears to be an abattoir. It is clear the feds want Jim to function outside the law, to “shoot first and ask questions later,” with little or no accountability.

“I’m always fascinated,” Ayer has said, “by the dark corners in which decisions get made and lives get changed.”[15] In fact, Jim’s life is changed a great deal by the cabbalistic meeting: as a requirement for joining the task force, he is told he must give up all plans of marrying Marta. In a moment that feels like a pact with the devil, he sacrifices her, reasoning, “This is my career, I got one shot.” Meanwhile, Mike lucks into a dream job when he discovers one of his old drug connections working at a corporation where he has gone for an interview.

In high spirits, Jim and Mike round up their buddy Toussant (Chaka Forman) and drive down to Mexico for one last blow-out weekend. There Jim, hovering near a total mental collapse, experiences a psychotic break when Marta tells him she is pregnant. In a tense, disturbing scene, he pulls a gun on her and holds it to her neck. She bravely challenges him to pull the trigger, they struggle, and she escapes from him. Their party spoiled, the three men leave to go back to L.A..

Jim has secretly smuggled a large cache of drugs across the border and tries to coerce Mike into helping him unload it. The deal goes horribly wrong, and Jim, feeling himself thrown back into a combat situation, ends up gunning down four men, three of whom are unarmed. Jim himself gets shot while fleeing the scene. The bullet paralyzes Jim's spine; seeing no future for himself, he begs Mike to mercy-kill him. After tearfully refusing at first, Mike finally gives in and fulfills his friend’s last wish and then returns, profoundly shaken, to his girlfriend.


Actor Christian Bale has already carved out a niche for himself playing boy-next-door psychopaths, most famously the role of Patrick Bateman in Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000). What he brought to the enigmatic Bateman, a kind of blank handsomeness that could turn squirrelly-eyed and mean at the flick of a lash, is also what made his Batman the most compelling in the franchise. The same schizoid charm is also on display here, though Jim Davis has fewer moments of calm and repose than Bateman did (or Batman for that matter). Less uptight and upwardly mobile, Jim is a different kind of American psycho, not invested in snazzy business cards or the stiff competition for getting reservations at this week’s trendy N.Y.C. restaurant — in other words, not crazed by a wealth of meaningless material options but by a dearth of them. Jim is like a starved jackal prowling a battlefield for corpses. Ayer shot Harsh Times on location in impoverished inner-city L.A.: Jim and Mike’s impromptu street-jacking of a rival gang takes place in front of a massive prison-like concrete wall topped with rings of barbed wire and spray-painted with a huge graffiti tag. This gritty context is crucial to Jim’s character. Just as American Psycho ended with a missive from Ronald Reagan, whose covert wars and heartless “trickle-down economics” provided a backdrop for Bateman’s own running amok (including cold-blooded slayings of prostitutes and homeless black transients — i.e., disenfranchised minorities), so Ayer suggests that Jim is a product of his era.

Jim’s also a product of the military; in one scene we see him ironing a dress shirt with meticulous precision. His military training has left him emotionally depleted, rigid; nothing remains behind the mask of his face but another carefully guarded mask. “Sue the military or something” — his buddy Toussant’s laconic verdict on Jim’s condition —assumes that money can compensate for lost sanity and selfhood. But part of Jim’s underlying problem is precisely the way a price-tag is placed so implacably on everything today: human life, suffering, health and well-being.

Downtown L.A.’s office buildings continuously slide across the windows of Jim’s car in a sinister usurpation of his identity. He is literally shadowed and effaced by these reflected skyscrapers where decisions are made every day, disturbing the innocent lives of millions of people while benefiting only a few. Jim’s military service has, after all, helped to make other, more untouchable people infinitely wealthier. Indeed, both Jim as well as Jack Starks in The Jacket live at the mercy of an older generation of white males who still retain ultimate political and social authority. Apart from Jim, most of the other Caucasian men in Harsh Times are “strawman” members of the establishment. There is a white cop who knew Jim and Mike from their youth; when he pulls them over for reckless driving, he lets them off the hook and tries to pal around with them, eager to go out clubbing some night, but they only snicker at him behind his back.

In fact there are two kinds of white men presented in Harsh Times — the establishment type who holds some badge of power, and the hipster (Jim) who is on intimate terms with people of color though also capable, we note, of pulling a kind of “racial/neocolonial rank” on them at any given moment. Robbing Flaco (Noel Guglielmi) and his gang at gunpoint, Jim slurs the manhood of one of the Hispanics, disdaining to take his new shoes because of his “little bitch feet.” Aware of his place in the chain of white command, Jim is often cowed by the older white men. Thus, in a scene where he is trying to beat a lie-detector test by clenching his buttocks, the examiner (Barry Colvert — not an actor but a real-life polygraph expert) spots what Jim is doing and tells him, “Son, I’ve been doing polygraph examinations since you were swimming in your daddy’s balls, so I know all the tricks.” The suggestive language here places Jim in a moment of Oedipal crisis, forcing him to play the devalued son to an all-knowing, omnipotent father figure.

When handed a plastic cup for his urine sample and asked if he can fill it, Jim snaps to attention: “I can fill a goddamn trash can, sir!” His essence, his inner life — the film implies — is itself already the stuff of refuse matter. Random, spontaneous acts of violence are the only things that make Jim feel temporarily alive. And although we recognize this as a cliché stretching back through a slew of postmodern fiction (Camus’ The Stranger, Bataille’s Blue of Noon and L’Abbé C,Mailer’s An American Dream), a certain amount of cliché and stereotyping must lay heavily over most of the characters in Harsh Times and The Jacket since, as people, they exist mainly as allegories, aggregates of statistical surveys and the expected odds.

They are people who have lost their subjectivity and become little more than objects in an object world. In The Jacket,the alcoholic Jean will fall asleep with a cigarette and immolate herself; no other fate can possibly await her dissolute life. Closing the inevitable circle, her daughter Jackie will grow up to repeat the same patterns of lonely isolation and substance abuse. Only Jack, who has already died, is able to recognize the true value of life, which the living overlook and deny or are prevented from experiencing fully. Like a guardian angel he makes it his mission to awaken some lost subjectivity in the doomed mother-and-daughter pair. “Sometimes I think we live through things,” he says in voiceover, “just to say that they happened ... to me and not to someone else.”

But this independent, autonomous “me” — swallowed up in the production-consumption nexus, exploited and commodified — is increasingly difficult to define. In Harsh Times we see that Mike has internalized the idea of material success as the basis of self-worth: there is a scene where he comes home to reconcile with Sylvia after fighting with her; he has just landed a job and stands in front of the TV to get her attention. “You aren’t made of glass,” she tells him reprovingly. “No,” he says proudly, armed with the official employees’ handbook that he holds out like a passport at a border check, “I’m made of me.” However, because he has tried to locate his sense of self in a corporate job that represents capitulation to the social order as such (in which, as a Latino, he is already a minority), he claims an autonomy that is still severely qualified.


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.” [16] 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 [1943], 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,

“Half the shit that happened in Operation Desert Storm can’t be tidied into a top-of-the-hour headline. Couldn’t be said neatly. Couldn’t be said at all.”

As one of the asylum inmates in The Jacket poses the issue:

“I’m in here because they say I have a nervous condition — well, here’s my question. Who wouldn’t be nervous if they really, really looked at their lives? I mean, whose life is really that good?”

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:

“There was also another scene in the original script that I took up at Sundance initially, where Jim and Mike beat up one of Sylvia’s coworkers. They put on ski-masks and jump him in the parking lot because he’s been making passes at Sylvia. That ended up not going into the movie, because it was a little too hardcore.”[17]

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.”[18] 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:

“[Jim has] done things that he simply can’t share with his friend, and that’s part of his problem.”[18]

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.            


[1] P. W. Singer, Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003), p. 226

[2] Singer, ibid., p. 76

[3] Singer, ibid., p. 159

[4] Tom Gregory, The Huffington Post, August 21, 2007

[5a] Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard (Translated and edited by Tom Milne; Da Capo Press, Inc.: New York, 1986), p. 28

[5] David Ayer, DVD commentary for Harsh Times (Crave Films/Genius Products, LLC., 2007).

[6] Interview with Rebecca Murray on the website, About: Hollywood Movies

[7] The genre-shuffling does not end there: The Jacket is also loaded with psychedelic digital-effects sequences that take us inside Jack’s hallucinating mind, like a somewhat milder version of “drug-cult movies” such as Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (1970) or Ken Russell’s Altered States (1980), while at the same time delivering a message about drug use as a life-destroying dead end.

[8] Nina K. Martin, “Dread of Mothering: Plumbing the Depths of Dark Water,Jump Cut no. 50, Spring 2008.

[9] Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia (Translated from the German by E. F. N. Jephcott; Verso: London, 2002), pp. 232 - 233. Gracchus the hunter died after falling from a cliff while stalking a chamois, but the ship that was meant to carry him to the underworld has lost its way; so Gracchus remains inert but fully conscious, doomed to sail all over the earth looking for his own burial place.

[10] Murray, ibid.

[11] Murray, ibid.

[12] Ayer, ibid. The Jacket also begins with green-tinted night-vision footage of war — U.S. planes strafing target sites with bombs, bodies exploding — which Maybury sets to composer Brian Eno’s ironically delicate, wistful, Satie-like piano music. (Eno first collaborated with Maybury in 1978, when Maybury assisted Derek Jarman on the dystopian punk-rock musical, Jubilee.) This motif of night-vision could be seen, in both The Jacket and Harsh Times, as a metaphor for seeing into “dark corners,” and perhaps for uncovering secrets and disinformation.

[13] Singer, ibid., p. 14

[14] Singer, ibid., pp. 207-208

[15] Ayer, ibid.

[16] Ayer, ibid.

[17] Ayer, ibid.

[18] Ayer, ibid.

[19] Ayer, ibid.

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