Monday, December 9, 2013

Movie Review: Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnace
Directed by: Scott Cooper.
Written by: Brad Ingelsby and Scott Cooper.
Starring: Christian Bale (Russell Baze), Casey Affleck (Rodney Baze Jr.), Woody Harrelson (Harlan DeGroat), Zoe Saldana (Lena Taylor), Forest Whitaker (Chief Wesley Barnes), Willem Dafoe (John Petty), Sam Shepard (Gerald 'Red' Baze), Tom Bower (Dan Dugan).

Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace almost feels like a freshly discovered crime drama from the late 1970s. Take out the few instances where cell phones are used, replace the word “Iraq” with “Vietnam” and “meth” with some other drug – and that is pretty much precisely what you have. The film takes place in one of those small Pennsylvania towns that made James Carville describe the state as “Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with Alabama in between”. Time hasn’t much changed this town – where young men are forced to decide between working at “the mill”, joining the army, not working at all or leaving town. The men live here all seem to wear flannel, have facial hair and haircuts dangerously bordering on mullets. They also do not say much – preferring to keep their feelings bottled up or drowning them in alcohol.

Christian Bale stars as Russell Baze, who is one of those men, but basically a good one. He keeps his head down, his nose clean and heads off to work at the mill everyday – even though working at the mill is probably what has made his father so sick. He is in love with Lena (Zoe Saldana) and has no greater ambition in his life than to lead a quiet, happy one with his girl, and raising a family. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is an Iraq war veteran who has been “Stop Lossed” more than once and has done four tours of duty. When he’s not in Iraq, he doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. He drinks, he gambles – borrowing money from John Petty (Willem Dafoe) – a small time sleaze ball, who is the nicest criminal we’ll meet in the movie. He also bare knuckle boxes to pay the bills. Basically, Rodney is angry – he’s given everything for his country, and they’ve repaid him with a future that offers little to no hope.

Yet it is Russell, not Rodney, who ends up in jail – a drinking and driving accident with fatal consequences lands him there for a few years. When he gets out, all he wants to do is rebuild his life – which is hard as Lena has left him for the local Sheriff (Forest Whitaker), his father has died, and Rodney seems further gone than ever before. When Rodney makes the mistake of getting mixed up with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) – who Petty (generously) describes as an “insane, inbred hillbilly”, you know he’s in trouble. DeGroat is pretty much pure, unrepentantly evil – and we know this from the beginning, as the first scene has him smack around his date at a drive-in, and then beat (perhaps to death) someone who dares to intervene. But Russell will not let what has happened go.

Out of the Furnace, co-written and directed by Scott Cooper, is pretty much bleak from beginning to end. You could easily turn a film like this into an action film or a thriller – but Cooper doesn’t seem too interested in doing that. There is nothing exciting about the film – even when it does turn violent. When that turn does come, the violence is brutal and ugly. Cooper’s only previous film was Crazy Heart – the film that finally won Jeff Bridges a long overdue Oscar. That film was also rather bleak in places – but by at least ends on a hopeful note – one that allows us to see the life its protagonist is now going to be able to lead. Out of the Furnace offers no such comfort. There isn’t a character here whose future looks all that promising. Like Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace shows that Cooper is a real filmmaker – and makes me want to see his next film even more. Also like Crazy Heart though, he perhaps leans a little too heavily on his influences here (with Crazy Heart, it was clearly Tender Mercies – here, it’s The Deer Hunter – and no, I really didn’t need the scene of actual deer hunting in this movie to draw that connection).

But also like Crazy Heart, Cooper does excel at getting excellent performances from his cast. He probably cast better actors than he needed to in supporting roles – but Tom Bower, Sam Shepherd, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Zoe Saldana all do fine jobs in their roles – even if they are never given all that much to do, and their characters are fairly one note. Still, an actor like Shepherd just oozes authenticity – he is incapable of hitting a false note – and his mere presence are often enough. For Saldana, this is an attempt to do something more serious than she’s known for – and she’s shows she is more than capable – a scene with her and Bale on a bridge where she tells him some devastating news is perhaps the best in the film – her face clearly showing the wear since last time we’ve seen her. Harrelson is, as always, great as DeGroat – even if he never truly becomes a realistic character, he is truly one of the scariest, most vile villains you’ll see in a movie anytime soon. Casey Affleck is great as Rodney – showing once again just how great an actor he is. It’s too bad he decides not to work more, because his mere presence in a movie indicates quality (which is perhaps why he doesn’t work more). Bale delivers one of his best performances as Russell – it’s a quietly intense performance that threatens to explode at any point. He is playing a fundamentality good guy, who little by little goes down a path he cannot retreat from. It’s further proof that he’s one of the best actors of his generation.

Out of the Furnace doesn’t really do anything new – yet what it does do, it does well. Cooper is a fine filmmaker – a young one, just at the beginning of his career, who already has two solid films under his belt. He’s one to watch – and so is his latest film.

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