A film review by Craig J. Koban December 13, 2013 

RANK: #19

OUT OF THE FURNACE jjj
½ 

2013, R, 116 mins.

 

Christian Bale as Russell Baze  /  Zoe Saldana as Lena Warren  /  Woody Harrelson as Harlan  /  DeGroat  /  Forest Whitaker as Wesley Barnes  /  Casey Affleck as Rodney Baze Jr.  /  Willem Dafoe as John Petty  /  Sam Shepard as Red

Directed by Scott Cooper  /  Written by Scott Cooper and Brad Ingelsby 

OUT OF THE FURNACE is about small town men that have been all but broken down and battered by life.  Two of them, long suffering brothers, share the common experience of having very little, if any, hope in their lives and, as a result, are then pushed to hellishly violent impulses.  This film, the sophomore effort from writer/director Scott Cooper (who previously made CRAZY HEART and directed its star Jeff Bridges to an Oscar win), not only creates an incredible evocation of its time and place, but it also forges a strong and empowered sense of authenticity to its characters.  The personas that populate OUT OF THE FURNACE feel genuine and lived-in, so much so that you feel like your eavesdropping on their everyday conversations.  This, no doubt, is supported by the film’s stellar and immaculately rendered performances. 

OUT OF THE FURNACE might superficially feel very far removed from CRAZY HEART (which focused on the trials and tribulations of a country music singer), but both films have the commonality of being about deeply flawed and self-destructive men and how we come to identify with them through their intense desperation and anxieties.  Both films are essentially about human misery, but OUT OF THE FURNACE perhaps takes that theme a step forward into decidedly darker alleys.  The men in the film are indeed riddled with grief and uncertainty, but the town they reside in – Braddock, Pennsylvania – becomes a downtrodden character in the film in its own right.  It’s somewhat fitting that the film is set in 2008 during the height of the Financial Crisis.  Steel towns with their furnace mills were once considered financially stable, but in the wake of recession the past dreams of prosperity have become a thing of the past.  The poverty stricken Braddock becomes a suffocating and damning influence on the decisions of the men that populate this film. 

One of these men, Russell Baze (Christian Bale), is an honor-bound and dedicated worker at the local steel mill.  His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), on the other hand, has just returned from a serious of devastatingly haunting tours of duty in Iraq and is clearly suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.   Not only is Rodney emotionally unstable, but he also battles with a chronic gambling addiction.  He owes a local bookie, John Petty (Willem Dafoe) money, who in turn owes money to Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a local sadist that has a genuine disinterest in showing mercy to anyone.  Russell finds himself in trouble too after a drunken altercation behind the wheel of his car leads to a death and a short prison sentence.  When he returns home out of the slammer he not only finds himself desperately trying to acclimatize himself back into his meager daily existence, but he also finds out that Rodney has become involved in a secret underground bare-knuckle fighting ring run by Harlan.  Things spiral out of control rather quickly for both brothers from here. 

 

 

OUT OF THE FURNACE does a bravura job of immersing viewers in the story’s microcosm of unending hopelessness.  Braddock is a place of rampant joblessness and melancholy, which only helps fuel the fires of its citizen’s woes and sense of low self-worth.  It’s almost as if this poor and denigrated town has become tipped upside down from its past sense of progress and economic vitality.  Cooper’s cinematographer, Masanobu Takayana, knows precisely how to give the film an oddly painterly sheen of gloom and doom.  The overall macabre look of OUT OF THE FURNACE is crucial to embellishing not only the character’s sense of mental displacement and simmering aggression, but it also serves as a harsh wake-up call to our recent financial worries.  In a way, Cooper’s film is a dark and seedy tale of revenge and manages to become, at the same time, a searing work that feels topical and relevant. 

Cooper also quarterbacks a triumvirate of lead performances that anchor every waking moment of his film.  Christian Bale perhaps does not get enough credit for being one of the most ferociously empowered and dedicated actors of his generation, and what’s truly captivating about his performance here is how low-key and understated it is, which is refreshing seeing how the 39-year-old Welsh performer has been known for more theatrical flashiness in the past.  I’ve read how many critics have pained to label Bale’s performance in the film as adequate without coming off as particularly memorable, but his serenely powerful under-the-radar performance is what makes it ring with such agonizing truth.  Russell is man that has had so much hardship, setbacks, and new obstacles placed in his path that it’s no wonder that he occupies most scenes in the film with a level of detachment.  Bale’s performance is measured and precisely calibrated; he has never been so quietly commanding in a film. 

Casey Affleck is certainly making a claim to being the finer of the two Affleck siblings on screen; he just might be one of the most underrated and compelling movie actors around (previous performances in GONE BABY GONE and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD proves this assertion).  Affleck’s scenes with Bale have such an unpredictable edge of intensity and give OUT OF THE FURNACE a dramatic punctuation that would not have been there with lesser actors.  Affleck has an utterly devastating confession scene to his brother about the ravages of war that showcases how well the young actor can dial into his character’s externalized rage.  Then there’s Harrelson, who’s no stranger to playing sociopaths, but here he manages to be almost impossibly hostile and barbaric.  The film’s opening scene, truly barbaric in every sense of the word, showcases Harlan pummeling his date in a car at a drive-in theatre while also maliciously beating up a local that was trying to help her.  Right from the get go, you know that this meth-addicted hillbilly will not just be a throwaway, pushover antagonist in this story. 

Harlan's chilling actions in the film’s opening help further establish OUT OF THE Furnace's morally dicey milieu.  Cooper, again, really knows his way around all of his characters and understands how to craft a story where people deal with notions of right and wrong and are plagued with the question of whether two wrongs do indeed make a right.  The film echoes THE DEER HUNTER in the sense that it’s about small town Pennsylvanian men dealing with the havoc of war, death and the ethics of their choices in life.  Like Michael Cimino’s film, OUT OF THE FURNACE exposes the inherent frailties of its  wounded souls.  All throughout watching THE DEER HUNTER and OUT OF THE FURNACE you just sheepishly let out a sigh of remorse and just wish that somebody – anybody – would give these characters a fighting second chance. 

However, It could easily be said that Cooper is not intrepidly trekking ahead and tackling new dramatic ground.  That, and he sort of fumbles the ball on a few side characters (like Zoe Saldana in the obligatory grieving wife role that’s established and then forgotten about) and writes himself into a corner in the film’s final act that feels almost dutifully preordained and predictable.  Still, considering that this is just his second film as a director, Cooper nonetheless manages to craft an unforgettable drama that feels wholly unique despite its narrative and thematic familiarity.  The raw talent on screen and behind the camera here is difficult to ignore.

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