Review: Out of the Furnace (2013)
December 6, 2013 § Leave a comment
(9/10) The marketing for ‘Out of the Furnace’ seems to center around the song ‘Release’ from Pearl Jam’s seminal 1991 debut album ‘Ten’. I have to go on record admitting I am a huge PJ fan and ‘Release’ is one of my favorite songs of theirs. It’s a heavy-handed but effective way to stir an audience’s emotions while quick-cutting between images of stoic men pointing guns at or beating one another to a pulp. The song shows up periodically in the film, as if book ending the story with auditory symbolism out the yin-yang. It’s one ham fist that punches true.
Scott Cooper’s ‘Out of the Furnace’ is star Christian Bale’s antidote to any potential curse post-Batman. I doubt anybody was betting against him avoiding the trappings of type-casting or irrelevance post-Batman, as he’s put out a slew of other films while the Nolan Bat films were in production (not to mention his Oscar win for ‘The Fighter’) and he’s the co-lead in what is already being called a shoe-in for awards season in David O. Russell’s follow up to ‘The Silver Linings Playbook’, ‘American Hustle’.
Furnace is a completely different monster, thanks to the ability of co-writer/director Scott Cooper (of ‘Crazy Heart’ fame) to weave a balance of humanity and good humor into his intense melodrama of a revenge thriller. That was a doozy of a genre description, I know, but it’s important to note because too often films try to be more than one thing and spread themselves too thin. In the case of ‘Out of the Furnace’, Cooper is precise in his presentation, knowing when to drop in a cliche to tug at the heart strings the fastest, while keeping the proceedings grounded.
We are witness to real life’s trials and tribulations in the form of the Baze family, a working class clan of basically decent folk living just outside the Appalachian mountains in a milling town where there are only so many options for a person to make an honest wage and the allure of extra under-the-table money is too tempting to walk away from, no matter the legal or physical ramifications.
Bale’s Russell Baze works at the steel mill, just like his dying old man before him. He’s covered in tattoos and has clearly been around the block, but he loves his pre-k teacher girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana), loves his family and tries to always do the right thing. This includes bailing his AWOL brother Rodney (Casey Affleck, Hollywood’s favorite lil bro) out of some debt to a local loan shark/hustler John Petty (Willem Dafoe) who, while willing to do what’s necessary to keep his debtors paying, is also basically a reasonable guy just trying to get along in the world. Despite both men’s best efforts, Rodney’s self-destructive path cannot be stopped and they all find themselves at the mercy of underground fight promoter and bet fixer Harlan DeGoat (Woody Harrelson in the grimiest role of his varied career), a violent man who has no problem ending your life over the slightest of disagreements, only sparing people if there’s money to be made off of them in the very near future. Early on in the film Bale’s Russell is forced out of pocket for a time, leaving his younger wide open to the consequences of some untethered inner-rage. When Bale’s Russell is able to return to the fold, his girlfriend has moved on with the police chief (Forrest Whittaker) and Rodney is in deep shit with the worst kind of folk.
These are all passionate men, passionate to faults. Whether they feel they must prove themselves, do right by their family, or protect their reputations, they all go to extremes with one another, until the Baze family leaves their time-honored jobs at the Mill, going out of the furnace and into the mean streets of the Appalachian backwoods, going toe-to-toe with tweaker trailer trash in the name of justice. Good men doing what needs to be done and bad men doing what’s in their own best interests.
The film neither hallows good intentions, nor does it damn the most black hearted of these very big hearted characters. It’s a bold, unwavering look at the emotional expectations of men in a desperate economy when toughness isn’t just an attitude, but a way to make a living. This is not for the faint hearted, but in fact for those who value heart over the head when shit hits the fan.
My last post discussed Christian Bale’s stilted line readings in Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. I discussed a desire for more fluidity in the style of the Bat films, but I was not implying that Bale is a one note actor. On the contrary, the man clearly morphs with the material and the director on any given project. In ‘Out of the Furnace’, Bale reminds us why he’s an annual contender to pick up some statues come year’s end. His Russell is most definitely a serious, tough individual, but he shows moments of humor, moments of emotional nakedness and moments of doubt that often evade thrillers’ protagonists. Whether or not he triumphs is beside the film maker’s point, I think. Russell Baze represents the choices we must make and live with the rest of our lives. For all the empty platitudes of psyche delving the Nolan Batman films claimed to be achieving, Out of the Furnace accomplishes the task with the lightest touch and the most satisfying of ambiguities.
Random Film Fact: Leonardo DiCaprio was once attached to star, with Ridley Scott directing. They wound up being credited as the film’s Executive Producers instead.