The film not only has direct echoes of Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, from 1978, in its tale of the men of a steel mill community returning from war as damaged goods, but it is driven with the same low-key, character-driven purpose as many American films from that decade. It also suggests not a lot has changed for America in the past 30 years, from the continuing decline of its former industrial heartland to a penchant for misguided conflicts.
It takes place in 2008. On the television, Obama's first presidential campaign is in gear. In Braddock, Pennsylvania, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works in the steel mill, like his father before him, though the mill is on its last legs; his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) took the only other option - he joined the army, and is caught in Stop Loss purgatory, being returned to Iraq for one tour after another. In other words, while Obama is preaching hope, there is little to be had for the sons of Braddock.
The film is at its best when establishing its Rust Belt milieu - the dilapidated town brow-beaten by the plumes of smoke pouring from the mill - and the touching relationship between the brothers. Bale and Affleck play this beautifully, convincing us of the bond between two very different individuals: one solid, reliable, comfortable in his own skin, the other deeply troubled by his experience in the war and angry that on his return the country has nothing for him.
It is a shame that director and co-writer Scott Cooper chooses to introduce criminality into the mix. Yet there is, again, a precedent. In The Deer Hunter, Christopher Walken's traumatised soldier leaves service addicted to the Russian Roulette he was forced to play as a prisoner. Rodney, too, can't shut violence out of his life, entering the underground world of bare-knuckle boxing where he becomes embroiled with psychotic hillbilly and drug kingpin Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).
This is a truly frightening turn by Harrelson, who suggests a man with a barely controlled use of his drugged-up aggression. When DeGroat and Rodney start eyeballing each other, we know it will not end well. But at its heart the film is about Russell, whose efforts to protect his brother will ensure that before long he will be on the same downward spiral.
Having just confirmed his playful chameleon nature as the pot-belly and comb-over conman of American Hustle, Bale switches to his good-looking self, not Batman clean-cut and reserved, but long-haired, goateed and very present with his emotions. When Russell leaves prison after an unlucky stint inside, his unrestrained pleasure at being free makes this familiar scene fresh and funny; equally, his nobility at the personal losses that await him is remarkably touching.
In a way, the story eventually lets Russell down. Whether Cooper's world view is simply too downbeat for words, or he has less faith in Russell than his character deserves, the film loses some of its authenticity in the final stretch.
That said, Cooper's first film was Crazy Heart, which won Jeff Bridges an Oscar for his performance as a country singer on the slide, and the director clearly has a good rapport with actors. He also has a good eye for locations and a crisp, economical narrative style - Russell and his uncle's nocturnal recce into a mountain-top drug den, and a subsequent police raid on the same place, are handled like a 1970s master.