“Out of the Furnace”
Directed by Scott Cooper
Starring Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker
Crime, Drama, Thriller
Out of the Furnace is not the movie you expect, it’s not quite the movie you think you want, and it’s certainly not a movie you’ll see coming, but it is one of the best movies of 2013. Petering along a solemn road of America as industrialized hellhole, the jet-black tone and snail’s pace cadence of the film may prove too overbearing for some but those willing to dive into the mire will find a film overflowing with themes of chaotic grace, personal sacrifice, ego death, spiritual deterioration, and unbounded duty. Many similarities to early Kurosawa samurai films and Drive – which itself is largely plotted like a samurai film – emerge and make the film rich with subtext, even though unearthing that subtext is a bit of a harrowing chore.
While the dark material present in the film – beat downs and drugs, depression (economic and mental) and murder – may yield endlessly gloomy circumstances, a trio of standout performances from Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, and Woody Harrelson showcases actors at the top of their game that keep you glued to the screen and cemented into the emotional stakes of the film. The first scene involving a dead-eyed Harrelson, a harlot, and a hotdog will take your breath away and doesn’t let up from there.
Cue Russell Baze (Bale), a genuinely good guy of the strong and silent persuasion, and lil brother Rodney (Affleck), a four-tour Iraq war vet trying to find his footing after his last deployment. In the barren, has-been Rustbelt of Pennsylvania, each face their own economic struggles while also, and more importantly, vying with their personal demons. Nightmares populated by decapitated babies, massacred friends, and piles of hacked off feet haunt Rodney, who can’t escape these grotesque images of war irrevocably burned into his tender mind. Russell, on the other hand, has never seen combat, but a drunk driving incident, where he was responsible for the death of a child, provides him with his own demons to combat.
Both men are bent by society and by themselves and seek means for redemption. As Rodney turns to bare-knuckle underground fighting – a gig he says is just for the money but we suspect that these acts of supreme self-mutilation provide some fleeting escape for his tormented soul – Russell courts serenity in the things of everyday living, like fixing up his Dad’s house. Also finding solace in the gentle monotony of manual labor at the soon-to-close steel mill, Russell tries to move past his spotted history while Rodney’s battle-worn psyche prefers to bask in dreams of grandeur; a grass is greener on the other side mentality that sees him losing his path and descending into Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat personal circle of hell.
In Russell, Rodney, and their fading pops, the Baze family represents the backbone of America: the laborer, the solider, and the invalid; the maker, the doer, and the needy. These three are a cross section of blue collar America caught in a deteriorating socioeconomic climate. Juxtaposed against DeGroat’s wealth (his financial stock culled from dealing crank and heroin) and utterly maniacal temperature, the Baze’s are the 99% to DeGroat’s brand of “elite” class. As they struggle and toil, he lumbers around, shooting spikes of crank into the crevices of his toes and growling intimidation at his underlings while his stacks grow higher. But rather than beat these metaphors over the head, the burrowing screenplay from Brad Ingelsby and director Scott Cooper is wildly subtle, allowing you to make up your interpretation about many elements scattered throughout the film.
While the marketing has played up aspects of this film as a gritty revenge story, these elements don’t really emerge until the final act (and I would strongly urge you not to watch any trailers for Out of the Furnace as they give away 90% of the film.) Instead, more than anything, this is a tale of two brothers who have lost their way.
Making up their own humble sub-nuclear unit, Russell takes the role of big brother to distant but loving Rodney very seriously. When Rodney wracks up a debt gambling on racehorses, Russell plays provider, silently going to the bookie, a pitch perfect Willem Dafoe, and silently pays his struggling brother’s debts. But unlike Rodney, Russell doesn’t crave praise, just peace. As Rodney gets deeper into DeGroat’s playground, Russel loses his opinions of peaceful negotiation and must take up arms to fight for his brother’s honor.
From playing the watchful protector, Russell evolves from almost effeminate – a character trait hinted at through his soft spoken intonation and general aversion to conflict and violence – to a stone cold but silently compassionate hunter of men. Like a shepherd left to herd his flock, one can only rely on his shepherd’s crook for so long. When the wolves come, it’s time to take the old rifle out of storage and switch to old testament mode. And, like the wrathful God of the old testament, Russel doles out his own variety of penalty. Again, biblical themes are open to interpretation, and may entirely just be something that I alone got out of the film, but there is something palpably holy in Russell’s aura and his journey in the film.
As Russell, Bale puts in one of the strongest performances of his celebrated and illustrious career. Entirely captivating and utterly committed, the greatness of his performance is hard to put your finger on but it shines from beginning to end. The final scene we spend with Russell juxtaposed against a heartbreaking sequence shared with ex-lover Lena (Zoe Saldana) showcase Bale’s awesome range. Providing yet another masterclass of acting prowess, Bale excels at making his craft look effortless. It’s as if he’s changed skins since playing the shleppy Irving in American Hustle as he has once transformed himself physically to “become” someone new.
Affleck too puts in a performance for the books and has finally begun to prove to this previously unconvinced critic that he may just be great actor. He balances camaraderie with solitude, laughs with anguish while having to sell his character both as a physical brute and an emotional mess and we buy every second of it. For his part, Harrelson’s DeGroat is the best, and most vile, villain of 2013. Despicable though he may be, his bridge-burning demeanor turns being cavalier into a bloodcurdling game of conversation, making him just about the worst person you could ever bump into at a bar. And though Saldana and a gruff-voiced Forest Whitaker don’t get the screen time they deserve, both bring complex elements to characters that could easily have been one-note and forgettable.
Adding even more depth to the film, the technical elements racket up the tension and help to accentuate the ripe metaphorical elements planted throughout. Dickon Hinchliffe‘s score, largely leaning on Pearl Jam’s “Release,” lends itself to the harrowing nature of the film as bleak yet bold cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi puts the rust back in Rustbelt. This is a dirty, decaying world the Bazes populate and the technical elements help prop up that fact, giving weight to the film and the metaphorical elements boiling within. All these elements – the stellar performances, crisp and dark direction, surging score, crunchy landscapes, an open-ended conclusion – all add up to a film that demands to be seen on the big screen and deserves to be dissected by its viewers.