OUT OF THE FURNACE Review

There is something both numbing and strangely profound about the second directorial effort from Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart). There is a menacing grim to the overall proceedings, yet it is almost impossible to not feel enlightened by what we see unfold on screen and by the development (or lack) of character and the insight that we gain as to why these people that Out of the Furnace zeroes in on are so compelling without being considered extraordinary. Where director Cooper and his cast excel are in how they don't decide to focus or rely as heavily on the events in which the story documents because in all honesty it feels that after about fifty or so minutes the narrative comes to somewhat of a halt and the momentum slows incredibly despite the fact what we see unfolding has yet to come to fruition and it remains unclear if things will turn out in the best interest of our lead character Russell Blaze (Christian Bale). Still, what keeps the ship from sinking is the fact that Cooper and his gritty eye keep the focus on the actors and the characters they are portraying and allow those performances to carry what might have otherwise been a sometimes silly, most of the time studied account of the backwood folks that apparently live in the hills outside of New Jersey. The site of an old steel town that allows the town resting below it to feel like it's stuck in the mid-70's, Cooper is clearly paying homage to the films of that era (namely Deer Hunter), this is where the story is set circa 2008, right around the time Obama was elected President and this little statement is used (as Killing Them Softly not-so subtly stated last year) to re-enforce the state of the economy at that time. All of this is effective in building the atmosphere and setting the tone for a film that knows who its characters are, where they've come from, but more importantly what little they likely have to look forward to and Cooper lets the weight of the narrative rest on their shoulders rather than the twists and turns we might expect from the more plot-driven revenge film that this has been made out to be in the marketing. Out of the Furnace isn't necessarily an exceptional film, but it provided a substantial amount of thought-provoking ideas in terms of the mentality of man in a remote region and the reasoning for a life that seems more simple than most would like to even consider. No, there is nothing exceptional here, but it is a solid film nonetheless with both Bale and Casey Affleck giving audiences something to remember it by.

Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) has a problem with everybody, including Russell Blaze (Christian Bale). 
That small steel town is known as North Braddock and as we pick up with brothers Russell and Rodney (Affleck) as they have both begun to travel down different paths. Rodney is in the military and keeps getting stop-lossed back to Iraq for more tours. Russell is trying to live an admirable if not ambitious life, but he has a beautiful woman at his side, Lena (ZoeSaldana) and a steady job at the mill that pays his bills and keeps a roof over their heads. The boys father is sick while Russell visits every morning and Rodney stays with him in their childhood home when he's home. When Rodney is home though he isn't interested in getting a job at the mill with his brother or working the typical forty hours a week to get by. He feels he's contributed more than his fair share to this country, and rightly so after being sent over four times, but in order to fulfill that need for carnage or get a rush out of life that the small town can't provide he turns to the local mobster-like figure John Petty (a slickly combed Willem Dafoe) to get him some extra cash through the likes of bare-knuckle boxing. On a fateful night Rodney asks Russell to meet him for drinks, which he does, but Rodney never shows leading to a cruel twist of fate that lands Russell in prison. This time spent behind bars leaves a fatal toll on Russell's relationship, but it only seems to strengthen the bond between brothers. Rodney is able to hide how he is making extra cash from Russell until he fails to return home one morning. The local police, headed up by Chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker in a role that would have been better suited to an unknown), promise Russell they will put their best foot forward in locating Rodney and that they suspect a well-known orchestrator of these fights known as Harlan DeGroat (a truly menacing Woody Harrelson) is behind it all. Naturally, the cops don't seem to be doing enough in Russell's eyes and so he takes matters into his own hands and along with their Uncle Red (Sam Shepard) they go looking for both Rodney and Harlan intent on setting one on the straight and narrow and the other right off edge of the world. While it is easy to see things probably won't end with a bow tied around the top, it is the inner-conflict that fuels Russell's motivation and Bale's performance that drive home the weight of what Out of the Furnace is trying to say.  

Speaking first to Bale's performance it is simply incredible that a man from the United Kingdom could come to look and sound as authentic as the actor does here. It is hard to imagine, hard to place one's self in another's position that grew up halfway around the world, yet Bale is able to make another incredible transformation that would have you believe he was born and bread right there in that small steel town. The accent, the mannerisms, the inherent masculinity with which he carries himself are all signs of not only dedication, but a real understanding of where this character came from and what made him the man he is during the time in which this story takes place. Russell is an inherently good man who has had a tough go of having not been raised in a privelaged home or with many doors open to him, but he has seemingly done the best he can with what he has been offered. It is one of those cases of not being about the hand your dealt, but what you're able to do with those cards and while Russell understands where he fits into the world he doesn't look at himself as a failure. This is the main difference between he and Rodney. Rodney has seen the world, he's seen more than he would have liked to, but that gives him not a feeling of superiority but one that allows him to think he can better handle the disappointment of this life than his brother, his father or his uncle. This is a shame, really, because despite the fact that Russell tries to do good by his simple life it is this restlessness from Rodney that continued to place him in bad situations and get him into trouble. As Rodney, Affleck is better than I've ever seen him. He has mostly done quiet work up until this point it's seemed and though his leading role in Gone Baby Gone stands out there is simply something more to the way he carries himself here that implies a new level of confidence not just in the character he is playing, but in the skill with which Affleck the actor is playing him. If you'd have asked me before seeing the film if I'd be able to take Casey Affleck staring down Woody Harrelson seriously I would have probably said no; that Affleck proves me wrong here left a strong impression and an unshakable feeling that despite being the root cause of all the harm that comes to the people in the film it was never intentional and only came from being a man too desperate for something more to realize the difference in getting out and taking everyone down with him.

John Petty (Willem Dafoe) leads Rodney (Casey Affleck) into the world of bare knuckle boxing.
While director Cooper also co-wrote the screenplay with Brad Ingelsby you can sense an inherent connection with the material and the location in which it is taking place. If not for the minimal score from Dickon Hinchliffe or the beautifully grizzly cinematography of Masanobu Takayanagi, but through the way in which the overall film conveys its deeper themes of guilt, tough choices and the absence of any good decisions when your entire life has seemed to carry little sense of hope in the first place. There is a scene about halfway through the film where Saldana and Bale share an extremely emotional moment and it is in this break from the doldrums of day to day life, a moment that Bale's Russell can only assume will offer a glimmer of hope that we see him in many ways come to terms with the full reality of what his life will amount to and that no matter how hard he tries there will always be something holding him back, something stepping in to cause him heartache and this no doubt influences his final decision we see on screen. Not only is the acting superb between Bale and Saldana in this scene, but they do what all good actors are capable of when given the right material: they transport you to that state of mind. In this case to divulge what the state of mind is would be to divulge some of the story points I'd rather not spoil, but just know that what this scene implies, what the range of emotions felt and conveyed in this singular piece of time between these two specific people is what shapes the core emotion of what it means to feel like you've truly lost something with no hope of ever recovering it. It is depressing, yet the whole film carries that kind of downtrodden weight and while, as I said before, the story can drift from beating us over the head with its grittiness to some outlandishly ridiculous moments (pretty much any scene with Harrelson classifies despite the fact it is likely intentional) that end up playing like they are forcing the twists and turns rather than allowing them to happen naturally to these people. Thus the reason I'm thankful Cooper was able to maintain the focus throughout on the performances of his skilled cast rather than the familiar story that ultimately comes to pass. The cast raises this to a level of necessary substance and because of their natural and painful portrayals of people born fighting and taught to hold nothing back they come away with a film that follows the same rules.