This is a male melodrama/revenge story about two brothers from a decaying steel mill town. Russell (Christian Bale) works at the mill, just like their dad did. Rodney (Casey Affleck) is a messed up veteran of the Iraq occupation who gets tangled up with a deranged meth dealer (Woody Harrelson). The working class characters and setting are the most interesting thing about the film, which is being promoted as a kind of thriller or crime film. What it’s really about is people faced with bad or limited choices. It’s about people who have been left behind by the dying American Dream.
It’s a very male movie. Zoe Saldana, as Russell’s ex-girlfriend, is the only major female character, and she’s given even less to do than in her similar role in the new Star Trek movies. Still, she’s very good at playing the one note she’s given, particularly in the scene where Russell begs her to come back to him. Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard, and Willem Dafoe are also given one-note roles with varying degrees of impact. The trio played by Bale, Affleck, and Harrelson carry the story, and they all do great work, even if Harrelson is playing a tweaking, mustache-twirling caricature.
The Pennsylvania mill town and backwoods, redneck New Jersey are perhaps the real stars of the show. Director Scott Cooper has a real feel for these particular urban and rural landscapes, and for the damaged macho characters that inhabit them. You could imagine an indie arthouse film made about this same scenario, but it’s nice to see a glossy film with a cast full of big names take it on. It has true grit.