Chris Pine and Ben Foster: forever blue collar Americans with their backs against the wall
I spend a fair amount of my time thinking about the value of a single human life.
Working at Community First! Village in Austin, TX, where we provide permanent supportive housing for the formerly chronically homeless, I work day to day alongside people who’ve been chewed up and spit out by the United States of America. They’re often dear people whom I love and who have untold value to offer to those around them. But our society has told them, again and again, that they are worthless and have nothing to contribute. The individual value of each of their lives is of sacred value to me, and I long for a world where our society values them as much as my place of work does.
I lead with this personal connection because The Contractor, Chris Pine’s latest thriller, spoke to me quite deeply in its own exploration of the value of a soldier’s life amidst the grinding gears of America’s war machine. Threading a tonal line somewhere between Hell Or High Water (another anti-hero, blue collar, deconstructionist American film starring both Pine and Ben Foster) and a Bourne film, The Contractor is slick, but grounded, offering thrills and reflection in equal measure.
Pine’s James Harper is a real modern military man, resorting to various steroids and HGH to keep his absolutely ruined knee limping along long enough to keep him on active duty and continue to support his family. But, failing a drug test, he’s sent out of the military with no benefits or pension. Forced into private contracting to use his training to earn a living, he’s sent on a shady mission that will obviously go south by Rusty (Kiefer Sutherland), a contact who has helped Harper’s former CO Mike. A nice paycheck later, Harper and Mike are black ops in Berlin, tasked with grabbing some data from a scientist whose funding comes from vaguely Middle Eastern sources. It’s not long before Harper is on the run, side by side with Mike once again behind enemy lines. Bourne this is not, however, and Harper always feels just a half step ahead of being killed throughout this ordeal.
Writer J.P. Davis takes his time with The Contractor, really embedding us in Harper’s life in the first act. We’re invested in this one man’s plight, pulling for him to find a way to provide for his family with the dignity we’d all hope would be afforded to someone who has sacrificed much for the country we benefit from. And the relationship between Harper and Mike is easy and identifiable as well. Pine and Foster have incredible chemistry already proven in Hell Or High Water and reinforced here. The Contractor is a real “human first” kind of film, where there are thrills and action and nail-biting suspense, but all of that is in support of telling Harper’s (and Mike’s) tale. Davis’ script adeptly addresses intergenerational trauma, the war machine, private contracting, and meat and potatoes daily American life. Some might argue that the film attempts to have its cake and eat it too, with both melancholic life exploration and some kick ass combat sequences.
I’d argue that The Contractor brings much to the table in this deconstructionist era. There’s not a lot of saber rattling going on. Pine is able to play a heroic lead and a military veteran with a special set of skills, but the system that made him is the villain here. It’s that age old exploration of one soldier’s life weighed against the profiteering and rhetoric of the nations they fight for. And The Contractor does an excellent job of grounding us with Harper, getting us on his side, and rooting for him to turn the tables against those who betrayed him, however far fetched that might be.
Pine and Foster are excellent, as always, but this film really brings a ton of talent to the table beyond that. Gillian Jacobs (Community) has a dramatic lead as Harper’s wife Brianne and I feel she did a lot with a little. Sutherland has extremely little screen time, but he absolutely nails being a guy JUST like Harper and Mike who decided one day to sell out guys just like him to benefit himself. He’s loathsome, but one can see how someone might become a person like him. I also absolutely love character actor Eddie Marsan, and he’s got a brief but emotionally resonant role as a contact Harper makes while he’s on the run. Marsan’s Virgil is yet another mirror for Harper… a soldier who survived his wars but is forever disconnected from his family as a result. A ghost of a man, but surviving nonetheless. Perhaps the only thing that distinguishes Harper from Rusty, Virgil, or even Mike, is a scarred and broken relationship with his own father, who himself abandoned his family after his wars were fought. Harper’s driving force in life is to not repeat the sins of his father, and that response to trauma makes all the difference in his decision making.
The Contractor is simple. It won’t win major awards or accolades. It may be too on the nose for indie cinema connoisseurs or not action packed enough for action junkies. But I loved this film and its thrilling journey of darkness for our everyman hero. I appreciate the frankness with which the film addresses the plight of our modern soldiers and the system that only values them until it’s done with them, and then leaves them high and dry once they’ve given all they have. I appreciate a film that demonstrates the humanity of our hero and explores the value of his life and his family’s life as weighed against some vague black ops priority that exists only to make rich people richer. The Contractor posits that our capitalistic system absolutely prioritizes the almighty dollar above our humanity, and keeps us rooting for our hero to prove his innate value against a stacked deck. This is exactly the kind of film that gets me invested, thinking, and cheering for the everyman to prevail.
Bare bones all the way, you’re getting nothing here but the film and a digital copy. That said, I’m thrilled that the studio deemed The Contractor worthy of a 4K UHD release because I think the film absolutely deserves that treatment… and it looks fantastic. This isn’t a mega-budget blockbuster, but it also isn’t straight to video fare. (Not to disparage DTV films, as I love them deeply). The Contractor exists in a nebulous space where it absolutely boasts an all-star cast, and looks amazing thanks to Swedish Director Tarik Saleh and cinematographer Pierre Aim’s top notch work, but it’s also not a wide release blockbuster either. I’d argue that the film looks great enough, and has enough to offer, that shelling out for the 4K UHD release may be worth it for those curious about the film… even if that 4K presentation is all you’re really going to get.
And I’m Out.
The Contractor hits 4K UHD and Blu-ray 6/7/2022 from Paramount Pictures.