By: Greg Maier
With Out of the Furnace, writer/director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, 2009) has created an intensely emotional and violent portrait of working class life in small town America. The film follows two brothers Russell and Rodney Baze who grew up in a small steeler town in Pennsylvania where, in the footsteps of their dying father, Russell (Christian Bale, The Fighter, 2010) works as a welder in the steel mill. Younger brother Rodney Jr. played by the talented Casey Affleck (The Assassination of Jessie James by the Coward Robert Ford, 2007) is an Iraq war veteran who falls into hard times financially and has to resort to using his combat expertise in illegal underground fights in order to pay back his debts. The film’s cast is rounded out with veteran actors Woody Harrelson (Seven Psychopaths, 2012), Willem Dafoe (The Hunter, 2011), Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff, 1983) and Forrest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, 2006).
Though the film has a number of flawed moments (a comedically long stare down between Bale and Whitaker and a dragged out cheesy ending), I have to say that the editing is quite outstanding and it is the silent imagery that sticks with you the most. The story spans over a period of several years and a couple of tours in Iraq for Rodney as well as a prison sentence for Russell and it is little things like the changing appearance of the characters that helps solidify the realism of the story. I also really enjoyed the performances from Affleck and Harrelson who bring everything they’ve got to each scene; especially the opening sequence which is one of the best I’ve seen this year and also one of the best of Harrelson’s career.
Bare knuckle boxing and dramatic feelings of revenge aside, Out of the Furnace is ultimately about the love that the two brothers have for each other when they both have nobody else for support. Russell and Rodney selflessly care for each other in their darkest moments which overshadows an unnecessary romantic subplot between Bale and Zoe Saldana (Avatar, 2009); though I would like to mention that there is a beautifully acted moment to look for between the separated couple that takes place on a bridge. Critics have praised Christian Bale’s performance as one of the best of his career, but I felt that it was Casey Affleck who shines the brightest in his role as he continues to prove to be one of Hollywood’s most underrated talents.
Ultimately I was very much a fan of Out of the Furnace despite my distaste for the film’s final act in which Bale and Sam Shepard become vigilantes. Yes the film is certainly derivative of The Deer Hunter (1978), but is that necessarily a bad thing? I would venture to say that it isn’t because after all, influence is impossible to avoid as a filmmaker and Scott Cooper certainly has forged his own vision of a broken family in a broken system. Maybe it’s because the setting and the casting is done so well that I believe this film is successful in expressing what it does. I look forward to future projects from Cooper who has shown to have more willingness to go out on a limb and more talent than a lot of filmmakers working today.