[6 December 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
They say that when a man loses everything, his life no longer has meaning. They also say that someone who has lost everything no longer has anything to lose. Thus, they become hollow inside, incapable of caring beyond the need to fill that undeniable, seemingly infinite void. So it comes as no surprise that hard working steel worker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) would resort to violence in order to avenge what’s left of his family. After all, this is a man who, at one time, had a decent job, a loving girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), a dying dad, a dutiful Uncle (Sam Shepard) and a devoted brother named Rodney (Casey Affleck) getting ready to head over to Iraq. Though he’s worried about his sibling’s lack of drive, he believes a tour of duty with the military will do him good.
One night, while driving home, a car pulls out in front of Russell. The resulting crash ends in tragedy and our lead is left with a DUI manslaughter charge and several years behind bars. When he is finally released from prison, he comes back to a world where his father has passed on, his lady has left him (for the town sheriff - Forest Whitaker) and his brother has become indebted to a local loan shark named John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Rodney also dabbles in illegal underground fighting, hoping to make the money he needs to get right with these hoods. When he hears there is a lot more dough to be made in the redneck backwaters of Appalachia, he begs Petty for a shot. This puts him square in the sites of vile badass racketeer Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) who organizes these bouts and doesn’t suffer fools, whores, or interlopers lightly.
Eventually, Russell has to “man up” and defend his honor, grabbing a rifle and heading into the boondocks to take on DeGroat one on one. Thus begins Scott Cooper’s latest attempt at rising from obscurity to the ranks of recognizable filmmakers. Previously, the writer/director guided Jeff Bridges to an Oscar for his role as a down and out country singer in Crazy Heart, and for a while, he was considered to viable replacement for Ben Affleck on a proposed adaptation of Stephen King’s epic The Stand. Lucky for all involved that said deal apparently fell through. With Out of the Furnace, Cooper proves once again that he has a winning way with actors. As for story and substance, he’s still at the brash borrowing stage.
Nothing about this movie feels or plays original. It lifts from better offerings and often mimics the post-modern noirs that became prevalent in the ‘70s and ‘90s. While the premise is obvious - as we mentioned in the first paragraph, this is the story of one decent man who loses EVERYTHING and has to decide how to respond to such personal devastation - the payoff is weak. Bale is very, very good at telegraphing emotions. With his long mop of greasy hair, partial beard, and dour looks, he evokes the kind of hopeful dead end many in this Pennsylvania mining town live with. During the opening scenes, we see how loving and caring he can be. But prison closes him down, turning him into someone who eventually sees how life has purposefully passed him by. By the end, he’s the walking wounded, almost done but still in need of one last defiant act to give his grief purpose.
Similarly, Casey Affleck is excellent as a former Vet unable to escape his demons. Dragged into a world where he cannot control his self-destructive streak, he just sinks in deeper. While he uses the excuse that he “needs the money,” it’s clear he needs the adrenaline rush and danger of this underground worl more. By the time his defiance costs him, we can see how this was the only natural end. Interspersed between these two are excellent work from Dafoe (whose like Wild at Heart‘s Bobby Peru only slightly legitimate and far more likeable) and Shepard. As for Harrelson, he’s done down and dirty before. He avoids channeling the cocky egotism of Mickey Knox while still making us believe in this character’s cold hearted cruelty. There’s a moment, toward the opening, where a drunk DeGroat manhandles a kowtowing slut he’s taken to the drive-in. Long before we see him wield a weapon or slice with a knife, we recognize that this baddie means total business.
It’s up to Cooper to control the scenery chewing and he does with efficiency. If anything, Out of the Furnace is too mechanical. This is the kind of movie where you find yourself consciously say “I wonder if Forest Whitaker has another scene?” and - BOOM! - his next moment arrives. It’s all preplanned and purposely balanced, almost as if Cooper sat down with the script, a time line, and broke down the number of scenes per actor and the minutes per sequence, figuring how to properly align both ideals so that no one suffers. This takes away from the growing sense of dread, especially when Russell is planning to take on DeGroat. We don’t need another moment of Saldana weeping over what she might have lost or Shepard warning us about making moral decisions.
In fact, you can feel this entire enterprise trying to leave its basic b-movie motives behind for an attempt at high art. Instead, Out of the Furnace remains dull and turgid, relying on our respect for the performances to keep us connected to the narrative endgame. By the time Russell takes up arms, we don’t really care what happens. We want DeGroat dead, but whether or not our hero survives becomes secondary. We have already watched as God, or something, has stripped him of everything - family, friends, dignity, rights, freedom, peace of mind, purpose, children, love, etc. - and now all we want is closure, as much to see some manner of justice prevail as it is an indicator that the film is finally over. When Forest Whitaker is running after Bale, gun drawn, we sense a possible twist, perhaps something divine or existential in the works.
Instead, the screen fades to black and we get one last image of Russell sitting at his kitchen table, a lone overhead lamp illuminating his obvious pre/post revenge mindset. No answers. No accountability. No nothing. Instead, Out of the Furnace hopes you’ve enjoyed the mood, the abundant local color, and this trip into the dark side of life along the fringes. Unfortunately, by giving his main character nothing left to live for, Scott Cooper has made a movie where audiences won’t care either. The acting in Out of the Furnace saves it. Everything else here causes it to sink under its own copycat pretensions.