“Out of the Furnace” is directed by Scott Cooper and stars Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Shepherd.
Scoot Cooper’s follow up film to his debut “Crazy Heart” is “Out of the Furnace.” It tells the story of two brothers in blue collar steel city Pittsburgh. One is Russell Baze, played by Christian Bale. The other is Rodney Baze Jr., played by Casey Affleck. The project once had Ridley Scott attached to direct, with Leonardo DiCaprio to star. Both men stayed on to produce, and the result was a cast full of Oscar caliber actors.
The film opens with a harrowing, dark sequence at a drive in theater. We’re introduced to Harlan DeGroat, portrayed by Woody Harrelson. Harlan is a straight menace, a figure not to be toyed with or crossed. I wrote in my earlier piece this year of most anticipated films that this character of Harrelson’s was one I was looking forward to. He does not disappoint. Arguably, it is Harrelson who delivers the best performance of this film, among the other stellar actors. He has long been underappreciated as an actor mainstream wise; as his best work always ends up being indie projects that don’t necessarily get a wide release. Harlan doesn’t even have to speak to strike fear into you. He just physically screams scoundrel, with rotten human being written all over him.
On the outskirts of Pittsburgh are Bale and Affleck. Bale is the brother who works at the steel mill for a respectable living, just like his father. Affleck is a soldier who bounces back and forth between home and stints in Iraq. When home, he has a gambling problem and cannot find a decent job; a common problem for the veterans during the 2008 economic crash, where this film starts from. To pay his debts back, he gets involved in bare-knuckle fights for Willem Dafoe’s character, the local sport fixer/club owner. Dafoe does a splendid job as a shady figure that still seems to have a genuine liking for some people, as he tries to look out for Rodney as best he can.
Meanwhile, Bale’s Russell is involved with Saldana’s Lena. As he tries to maintain his family duties, tending to his ailing father and reeling brother, Bale captures the essence of a do-gooder. Unfortunately, a tragic accident occurs, and a resulting prison stint for Bale. Even through the horrible accident and jail bid, Bale still holds the audience’s sympathy. The first post Batman film for Bale, he once again delivers a solid, internal performance that we’ve come to expect from the talented lead man. When released, he immediately tries to make amends with his girlfriend, who is now with police officer Forest Whitaker. In what could be the most powerful scene of the film, there is an emotionally charged exchange between Bale and Saldana on a bridge.
Then, upon taking notice, Bale tries to convince his brother Rodney to stop fighting and to come work at the mill. Affleck takes center stage and shows off his acting chops, which seem to have been overshadowed by his older brother Ben’s career. He explodes into a rage of how the war has affected him, and that his country has betrayed him for not providing opportunities back home after Iraq. Reluctantly, Dafoe’s character takes Affleck to the outskirts of New Jersey, where we reunite with Harrelson’s Harlan. Affleck takes a dive to pay off debt. But, the aftermath is not so pretty. When Affleck goes missing, Bale is on the hunt. He doesn’t feel the police are doing an efficient job, and takes matters into his own hands. Along the way, we’re treated to an underutilized Sam Shepherd as the brothers’ uncle, and a showdown between Bale and Harrelson.
All in all, the film does a decent job in establishing the blue collar nature of our protagonist’s life, and the conflicts of the backyard neighborhood. The only problem is this project seems to be plagued by indie film ambitions that went Hollywood. The script is decent, saved by the actors. There are some clichés, and putting around when it comes to scene structure and depth. It may not be the best narrative structure, or fully live up to its cast, but the performances of Bale, Affleck, and especially Harrelson make this movie worth watching.
Rating: 3 stars