OUT OF THE FURNACE is one of those movies I’ve been highly anticipating since the first trailer was released. It looked like a gritty, powerful social drama with an impressive cast and a decent director (Scott Cooper of CRAZY HEART), and now I’ve finally seen it, I’m happy to say it does, for the most part, meet my expectations.
We follow Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a modest steelworker with family problems. Though he’s got a steady (if hazardous and underpaid) job and is in a happy relationship with Lena (Zoe Saldana), his father (Bingo O’Malley) is terminally ill and his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is getting into debt with underworld types as he refuses to throw the fixed underground bare-knuckle fights he has turned to in order to give his life a purpose since returning from Iraq. A tragic accident puts Russell, the one stable element in the Baze family, behind bars, during which time Lena moves on, his father dies and Rodney in put in peril by an encounter with a crime lord (Woody Harrelson) who doesn’t take kindly to anyone standing up to him.
Nobody plays rough working-class Americans like Bale, which is odd because he isn’t working-class or American. Casey Affleck isn’t the first name that comes to mind to play an unstable young soldier, but he gives his all, and his outburst in response to Bale’s accusation that he should be making more of his life certainly stands out. Sam Shepherd does what he’s good at as Russell’s tough uncle – standing in the back of shot and looking dependable. You can tell Harrelson is playing a mean mother because he’s got bad teeth and is drinking something stronger in every subsequent scene (first it’s whiskey, then vodka, then something clear from a jam jar), and he’s terrifying every time he’s on screen. Sadly, Zoe Saldana and Forest Whitaker are under-served, with the former just giving Russell something to pine over when he first gets out of prison, and the latter, playing police chief Wesley, just acts as a good angel to sit on Russell’s shoulder in the second half of the film. I get why the filmmakers cast Willem Dafoe as a mid-level mobster who looks out for the Baze family, but then they dress him like the owner of a back-alley 70s adult store and he just looks laughable compared to Harrelson’s snarling, bear-like Harlan.
It’s a film of great contrasts. We see Rodney in a violent brawl juxtaposed with Russell scraping flaking paint and sealing leaky windows. Russell is always the stable brother, arguably with just as many issues, with the same amount of mistakes behind him as Rodney, but he just deals with it better. He sets himself tasks, gives himself something to aim for, whether it’s making the house more livable or trying to get his ex-wife back, whereas Rodney only knows how to relieve his tortured soul through rage, through violence.
The dialogue is realistic, naturally delivered, and fuelled by white-hot emotion. Pretty much everyone has a scene to cement who their characters are and what personal issues they are struggling to overcome. Bale as Russell says far more in his intense focus on the task at hand – whether it is doing the washing up or hunting down a monster who has wronged his family – than he does with dialogue. Harrelson as the brutal Harlan DeGroat (great criminal name) grinds his teeth and mumbles his threats near-constantly, so you rarely catch exactly what he is saying, just that it wasn’t anything nice.
Cooper and his cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (THE GREY) pack every beautiful-depressing shot full of symbolism to decode. At about the film’s halfway point, Russell returns to the scene of a tragedy that changed his life for ever, just as his brother’s life is taking a turn for the worse. Russell stands in the dead-centre of a wide shot, isolated and alone, between a crossroads representing the difficult choice he is about to make.
For some, the plot might feel a little slapdash, loose and lacking clear drive for supporting characters, but I appreciated the openness of it, the way Scott Cooper leaves a lot up for interpretation. Several key events happen off-screen, and you only see the consequences of things happening in the reactions of the central characters. Cooper seems to put a great deal of trust in his audience filling in the blanks for themselves, which is something you see depressingly rarely these days.
The point where Cooper tightens the reigns is the film’s final act, which is straight out of GET CARTER, being as it is a deadly and intense foot-chase across a desolate industrial setting. You’re still allowed to make your own judgement about what exactly happened, but I’d have still cut to black earlier in the sequence for an even more open-ended conclusion, but that’s just me.
Out of the Furnace cements Scott Cooper’s place as a perceptive writer-director of drama who gets the very best out of his actors. The sturdy performances, emotional weight behind the story, the relevance of the themes to a contemporary audience, as well as the striking visuals smooth over any rough edges the film has (for instance, some under-characterisation). It’s certainly a film that should hold up to a re-watch, and one which refreshingly gives its audience enough credit to work things out for themselves. SSP