Out of the Furnace (United States, 2013)December 05, 2013
Steel, once a bulwark of American industrial might, was transformed over a short span of decades from a thriving commercial enterprise into a fossilized shell of its glory days. Once an engine of prosperity and a provider of reliable employment, it became known for the hardship and blight left in its wake as the domestic market shriveled under pressure from cheap imports. The collapse of Big Steel left behind numerous dead and dying communities. Among those was Braddock, Pennsylvania, a Pittsburgh suburb of 3000 with 35% of the population below the poverty line. This real-life locale is where Out of the Furnace transpires and Braddock's personality as a town discarded by progress makes it more than just a setting for a revenge thriller; it's as important a character as any of the humans.
Out of the Furnace is moody and atmospheric, but lapses in narrative logic and a confused sense of geography can create frustration. The movie takes its time; the tone is that of a slow burner occasionally interrupted by sudden, violent interludes. Thematically, Out of the Furnace explores the nexus between revenge and justice as it follows a character whose every step extends the mass of guilt weighing upon him.
Director Scott Cooper's previous outing was 2009's Crazy Heart, which won Jeff Bridges his long overdue Oscar. Like Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace is steeped in an understanding of how the location influences the characters. No one in Braddock is rich - it's just a matter of how poor each individual is. The lead character, Russell Baze (Christian Bale), is a hard-working man who puts in his daily shift at the steel mill in order to make ends meet. His brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), has endured several tours of duty in Iraq and is having trouble putting his life back together. He's deep in debt to a local bookie and loan shark, John Petty (Willem Dafoe), and becomes involved in clandestine bare-knuckle boxing matches to make a little cash, most of which he gambles away. Desperate to make a big score, Rodney accompanies Petty to New Jersey, where he's introduced to Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a sociopath with a short fuse and a love of violence. Meanwhile, Russell, newly released from prison after being convicted in a drunk driving homicide, tries to come to grips with the results of his incarceration.
Russell is a tragic figure in the classical sense. His life - at least what we see of it - is a cavalcade of pain, disappointment, and sadness. In the end, he has little to cling to but a deep-rooted sense that a wrong has been done and it's his responsibility to right it. The consequences he might have to suffer, both in real and metaphysical terms, are of no matter. Christian Bale's method acting allows him to burrow under Russell's skin. It's a solid but not overwhelming performance - certainly strong enough to get viewers to sympathize with him.
Over the course of a varied career, Woody Harrelson has played his share of unpleasant individuals, but none - not even the one in Seven Psychopaths - has been as reprehensible as DeGroat. His misanthropy and misogyny, which at times approach an almost cartoonish level, are evident in the first scene and he doesn't soften. Harrelson is so good at being evil that it's difficult to remember that his career began with him playing the good-hearted, naïve bartender in Cheers.
Casey Affleck represents an enigma. Normally chosen to play shy characters that demand low-key portrayals, Affleck is cast against type as the pugnacious Rodney. Damaged by his war experiences, Rodney lives in a state of unrelieved pain and Affleck brings that quality home with a performance that is at times riveting. There is, however, an issue: Affleck is physically wrong for the part; at no point did I accept him as a possible winner of bare knuckle boxing matches, let alone someone who could win money for bettors by taking a dive.
The second half of Out of the Furnace is in need of tightening. The narrative bogs down with a superfluous road trip for Russell and his uncle (played by the reliable Sam Shepard) and there are instances in which mostly minor plot elements don't make sense. Basic geography issues related to the state of New Jersey indicate the director's lack of familiarity with the area in which several scenes transpire.
Out of the Furnace's nihilism will make it unappealing to those on a quest for a feel-good time and its slow, meditative style disqualifies it for anyone wanting a more active thriller. It's trying to be a companion piece to Winter's Bone but the screenplay isn't as literate or well realized. Out of the Furnace features some nice performances and is deliciously atmospheric but it never achieves its goal of being a compelling meditation about how the economic erosion of a community influences the lives of those trapped within it.
Out of the Furnace (United States, 2013)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
Screenplay: Brad Ingelsby and Scott Cooper
Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Music: Dickon Hinchcliffe