MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Out Of The Furnace’

Out of the Furnace Movie

Film: Out Of The Furnace
Directed By: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana

If Scott Cooper’s short but notable career has taught us anything, it’s this: half of directing is casting. Okay, that might not be a quantifiable statistic, but you get the idea. For his first feature, Crazy Heart, he managed to wrangle Jeff Bridges into the role of a down and out country singer, and there’s probably no role more perfectly apt for His Dudeness. The rest of the film seemed to simply fall into place surrounding Bridges’ acting (and musical) talent, while Bridges went on to win the first Oscar of his long, legendary career.

Cooper’s follow-up, Out of the Furnace, is more of an ensemble piece, though it still offers plenty of meaty roles for a group of talented actors to sink their teeth into. And again, it’s immaculately cast.

Christian Bale is sort of the default lead in the ensemble, playing a hard-working laborer in a Pennsylvania steel mill. He puts in overtime to secretly pay off the gambling debts accrued by his brother (Casey Affleck), an Army veteran struggling to find his place in the world after four tours in Iraq. Things turn from bad to worse when Affleck resorts to underground bare-knuckle fighting in a last ditch effort to clear his slate.

With the aid of his bookie (Willem Dafoe), Affleck takes that dreaded “one final fight” up in the Appalachians and gets involved with a group of “inbred mountain folk from Jersey,” as Dafoe so eloquently describes them. This group of inbreds is led by an ultraviolent tweaker played by Woody Harrelson.

I hate to give much more of a synopsis than that. I went into the film knowing absolutely nothing about the plot, having never even seen a trailer. That isn’t exactly a compliment to the CBS Films marketing team (and there’s no need to pile on after the film’s meager $5.3 million opening), but oddly, that’s the best way to absorb the film as it relies so heavily on its unpredictability, which more often than not stems from the erratic behavior of Harrelson’s character. But if you’re the type who likes to know what kind of film you’re getting into, I can tell you it eventually turns into a bloody vengeance-fueled manhunt.

With his permanent scowl, constant spitting and often incomprehensible drawl, Harrelson steals every scene he’s in and and keeps the audience on their toes throughout the film following an opening scene that sees him forcing a hotdog down the throat of a date and beating a much larger man to a pulp while trying to enjoy a drive-in screening of Midnight Meat Train. He’s pretty much the meanest, scariest dude on the planet and he dabbles in any illegal activity you can imagine.

If Harrelson gives the type of over-the-top performance that chews up all of the film’s smoggy, drab scenery, Bale’s turn is one of the most understated of his career. His character, while far from perfect, tries to do the right things and owns up to his mistakes. He accepts that working at a steel mill is as good as it gets in this small town and tries to make the best of it.

The film isn’t perfect either. The lone female character in the film, played by Zoe Saldana, is mostly wasted in a love triangle with Bale and a police chief played by Forest Whitaker. And somehow nothing is made of the fact that Whitaker should be playing Saldana’s father rather than her love interest. But at least Saldana’s presence affords the film one memorably impassioned exchange between her and Bale.

This is not a film about PTSD, at least not in the way something like Brothers is. It’s also not a film about the economy in the sense that Up in the Air or The Company Men are. Out of the Furnace never hammers us over the heads with these problems or takes a political stance on the issues. These topics simply exist in the film because it is one of its time and place.

Like “Release,” the classic Pearl Jam song that so effectively bookends the film, Out of the Furnace is slow and patient in its pacing, yet rich in mood and atmosphere. The rest of the film’s soundtrack is filled with the ominous strings of Dickon Hinchliffe’s score, which helps punctuate the film’s bleak atmosphere. Hinchliffe also scored Winter’s Bone, and I think it’s safe to say that if Winter’s Bone made you want to avoid the Ozarks at any cost, Out of the Furnace isn’t going to do any favors for the tourism industry in the Northern Appalachians. It’s actually hard to believe Cooper couldn’t find a role for John Hawkes somewhere.

Sticking around for the credits, one thing really popped out to me. NOTE: “This film was shot entirely and proudly on Kodak film.” Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who also shot Silver Linings Playbook, did an amazing job of establishing the brooding atmosphere of the film’s setting and so much of that simply cannot be captured digitally. If film ever completely dies, it’s going to be films like Out of the Furnace that are most deeply impacted.

Score: A-

Review written by: Kevin Blumeyer

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