OUT OF THE FURNACE
2013, R, 116 mins.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.