Monday, December 23, 2013


Out of the Furnace

Directed by Scott Cooper
Written by Scott Cooper & Brad Ingelsby

     The second feature film from writer-director Scott Cooper, Crazy Heart (2009), is a visceral, scruffy, if sometimes forced film that does not quite deliver through its conclusion. That in no way means there is not much to admire and appreciate with Out of the Furnace. The film contains another wonderful, gritty performance from one of the best actors in film today, Christian Bale, as well as great work from Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe and a tough as nails redneck portrayal from Woody Harrelson. Out of the Furnace does not shy away from the downtrodden in life and the under appreciated veterans coming home from Afghanistan, but could have used another twenty to thirty minutes to come full circle.
     Bale plays Russell Baze,  steel mill worker in the Pennsylvania town of Braddock, just outside of Pittsburgh. A down and dirty, hard working man, not having much to show for it, but has a beautiful girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) who he wishes to marry and start a family with. One day, after a few drinks after work, he hits a car backing out of a driveway and kills a young boy. Sent to jail for an unannounced amount of time, he meets off and on with his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) who is going through numerous stints in the Afghanistan war. Once out, Russell finds out Rodney, now back from the war, has been fighting in the local underground bare knuckle boxing circle and owes a considerable amount of money to local, low level crime boss John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Eventually, both men's paths cross with "mountain man badass" Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) and the outcome is detrimental to all involved. 
    Now, Cooper starts his film off with a brutal scene at a drive-in where DeGroat forces an uncomfortable situation between the woman he is on a date with. Gruesome and unsettling to say the least. When another local becomes invested in his violence towards his date, a more intense amount of brutality is brought forth from DeGroat. DeGroat gruesomely beats the hell out of a man and threatens everyone else that attempts to intervene. He throws the woman out of the car and drives off. This is man that lives by another set of rules outside of the local law enforcement. As the film goes on, we are aware that the authorities do not mess with DeGroat and his family in the woods. These are backwoods hicks that run their little community with their own set of justice. Cooper automatically sets the tone of a man that has little contempt or remorse for anyone. He is his own law, leader, God. He runs the show and everyone better know it and be afraid of him. With this opening, the tone and feel of the film is set, and it is not pretty or soft.
     Once Rodney goes missing after Petty sets a fight up with DeGroat and his thugs, his brother Russell is set on finding out what happened, regardless if he has to break the law himself to find the truth. The film rolls on, but once Russell and his Uncle Gerald 'Red' (Sam Shepard) begin to untangle the mystery and start diving into DeGroat's other business in the local drug trade, things get messy. The worse part is that film begins to feel very forced. Almost as if he had to rush the ending. Whether that was his choice or the studio executives, I feel it caused the film from being exceptional. I wanted to see Russell chase and follow DeGroat more, without feeling that the story lost some of its power and structural elements. A good film that could have been great with more story and time.
     Cooper has a beautiful eye and can direct the hell out of a film. The actors he has chosen to work with in this film really alleviates some of the narrative issues that occurred during the third act. Bale, who is constantly challenging himself and making great decisions, is just phenomenal here. Steady, but emotionally devastated once his brother disappears. He loses Lena while in jail and she ends up marrying the police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker) and still finds the strength to live on and fight for his brother and family. He truly exemplifies the small town, hard working, everyday man, with a little extra fight him. Just wonderful as always.
     The rest of the cast is fantastic with Casey Affleck, along with his work in David Lowery's Ain't Them Bodies Saints, giving another solid performance as a man fighting with post traumatic stress form the war. A little political discourse when he states he cannot get a job after serving his country. An emotionally statement that hits home, but also raises the question of what else is going on with this young man. He seems like he just wants to fight the pain of war away, but feels he should to have to work in the steel mill. What he wants, deserves and desires is tested quite throughly. In one of the more powerful scenes where Bale and Affleck go at it, it just knocks you out at how both of these great actors can deliver such emotion, power and depth. Russell basically says for Rodney to get off his ass and work at the mill like he does and their father did. Good, interesting balance between what one does and what one has gone through, both physically and psychologically.
     Harrelson is a mean son of a bitch in this film and does not back down from anyone. He has the tough, muddled redneck voice down pat and definitely plays a man that is not to be fooled around with. He exhibits vigorous vulgarity throughout. Dafoe is solid, with an hilarious slick back hair do, that has one crazy, curly mullett. Saldana shows more range with this role and Whitaker continues with a challenging performance of a police chief dealing with a man that is going to do whatever he has to do to find his brother. Especially when Russell believes the police are cowards by not going into DeGroat's territory and administering the law. Russell is no coward.
     In the end, the wonderful, gritty acting saves Cooper's Out of the Furnace from being just a mediocre dramatic thriller. The film just did not deliver in the final act and really felt pushed, instead of allowing the story to unfold at a chilling, more balanced pace. That is not to say that Cooper is not one of hell of a director and storyteller. Good at building suspense and his film containing emotional, dramatic moments. I just wanted more and hate it when a film feels forced. Great performances from all involved, but the narrative just fell a little short with good suspense, but not enough. 

Photo credit by IMDB.

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