In OUT OF THE FURNACE, writer/director Scott Cooper's sophomore outing in follow-up to the award winning Crazy Heart, Cooper proves that he is no “flash in the directorial pan.” Pulling no punches, Cooper delivers a prosaically melancholy tale of hearth, home and the ties that bind. An observational character study of the human condition and human behavior delving into the darkness and light of each soul, OUT OF THE FURNACE burns into your your conscience.
Set in the Rust Belt region of the United States in 2008, Cooper again embraces the hard-working blue collar men and women of this country and the centuries old code of ethics by which they live. With a deliberate darkness that feeds on man’s feud between good and evil, Cooper infuses OUT OF THE FURNACE with subtextual economic and political commentary on the country as a whole. So thematically well-crafted and structured, the film allows the performances to come to a slow burn before exploding and leaping off the screen, imbuing the very soul, and none moreso than Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson.
Russell Baze, intense, introverted and methodically deliberate in his choices and life, works at the local steel mill; for how much longer, though, he doesn’t know. The steel industry has taken a hard hit and the Braddock mill is one of the last standing. Brother Rodney is the hot-head in the family. Already having served multiple tours of duty in Iraq, Rodney spends his time gambling, racking up debts that he can’t pay, with people who will find a way to make him pay, thus forcing Russell to step in and try to save his little brother - again. In the meantime, their father is at home dying of cancer, cared for by the boys uncle, Red Baze.
Due to a fatal auto accident, Russell lands in jail and on his release finds his girlfriend Lena now in the arms of the local police chief, his father dead and Rodney still gambling but trying to pay off his debts by betting on himself in illegal bare-knuckle fights run by leading drug dealer and criminal, Harlan DeGroat.
Christian Bale is at the top of his game. Bringing a quiet, introspective elegance and kindness to Russell, he is the heart of the film. Everything that Russell does is motivated by his heart and wanting to do the right thing by everyone. Bale embodies the very essence of that with this performance. On the flip side we have Woody Harrelson who goes through the roof with his performance as Harlan DeGroat. Beyond entertaining with the slow-boiled violence, Harrelson not only goes out on a ledge, he free falls from it, indelibly etching his performance and the character of DeGroat on your subconscious. The true beauty of OUT OF THE FURNACE is watching the beautiful emotional dance between Bale and Harrelson. They are in perfect synchronicity, the yin and yang to each other, feeding, fueling, leading, checking. This is a dance you hate to see end.
Casey Affleck captures the essence of a man on the edge, a man having endured the horrors of war, a solider quietly suffering with PTSD. Affleck infuses an uneasy, furtive, edginess into Rodney both in speech and manner. He imbues the character with truth and honesty.
As Lena, the rose amongst the thorns, Zoe Saldana adds a tender poignancy to not only the film as a whole, but to the character structure of Russell. Hand in hand with Saldana’s work is that of Forest Whitaker who, as Chief Wesley Barnes, grounds the film in reality for not only Lena, but Russell.
Particularly effective is Sam Shepard who, as Red Baze, provides an understated calming, sage wisdom that sets the generational tone necessary for the characters and the history of the region. Willem DaFoe adds electricity to the proceedings playing both sides of the fence as shady bookie/bar owner John Petty, who’s out to make money but who also genuinely cares about Rodney, thus putting himself between a rock and a hard place. It’s wonderful watching DaFoe squirm to his own devices. A nice turn by veteran Tom Bower as local bartender Dan Dugan captures the voice of the downtrodden yet proud, with a single glance.
Directed by Scott Cooper and co-written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby, it was Cooper’s own history that led him to this story and the town of Braddock. Growing up in a small Virginia town and as the grandson of a coal miner, “That blue collar milieu was something that I really understood and resonated with me. . .It was important to weave all of those themes into a narrative in a very personal way.”
Shooting on 35mm film, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi uses light and shadow to create a moody, textured and melancholy reality, laced with cinematic softness. A graceful lyricism permeates the visual tone, enhancing the surface simplicity that masks the slow-burning sub-text. David Rosenbloom’s editing adds a level of unpredictability that while distracting and feeling unbalanced at times, also serves to jolt one from the seemingly downtrodden and routine world of Braddock and the Baze boys.
Scoring by “Winter’s Bone” composer Dickon Hinchliffe is effectively haunting while Pearl Jam’s “Release” serving as bookends to the film sets a soulful, and even woeful, melancholy.
Elevated by its performances, OUT OF THE FURNACE is a quiet, observational character study of the human condition and human behavior that delves into the darkness and light of each soul, burning itself into your conscience.
Directed by Scott Cooper
Written by Scott Cooper and Brad Inglesby
Cast: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, Willem DaFoe, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower