Russell and his younger brother Rodney live in the economically-depressed Rust Belt, and have always dreamed of escaping and finding better lives. But when a cruel twist of fate lands Russell in prison, his brother becomes involved with one of the most violent and ruthless crime rings in the Northeast – a mistake that will cost him everything. Once released, Russell must choose between his own freedom, or risk it all to seek justice for his brother.(imdb)
December 3, 2013
In movies, the working class often serves as a sacrificial emblem of the failure of the American dream, one that these days is often embellished with lovingly photographed decay and an elegiac air. Set in a corroded stretch of the Rust Belt, “Out of the Furnace” ups the ante with a story of two blue-collar brothers — a steel mill welder and a former soldier — who are as totemic as the figures immortalized in a Works Progress Administration mural. It’s a heavy, solemn tale of blood ties that turns into a melodramatic gusher filled with abstractions about masculinity, America and violence, but brought to specific, exciting life by Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson.
The film is set in Braddock, Pa., a steel town turned ghost town, around the onset of the economic downturn. It’s the kind of place where dilapidated clapboard homes line the sagging streets, and where you can find a mill worker like Russell Baze (Mr. Bale) nursing a drink while Edward M. Kennedy praises Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Russell scarcely looks at the television, but the director, Scott Cooper, lingers on Kennedy long enough for you to hear the money quote: “I have come here tonight to stand with you to change America, to restore its future, to rise to our best ideals, and to elect Barack Obama president of the United States.”
Russell may not have time for politics, even if Mr. Cooper wants to at least gesture in a certain post-American Century direction. Yet it’s unclear for a long time what he means to say. Written by Mr. Cooper and Brad Ingelsby, “Out of the Furnace” opens quietly with belching smokestacks and dust motes dancing in penumbral interiors, only to shift dramatically with a ghastly car crash that lands Russell in prison. By the time he’s released, his girlfriend, Lena (Zoë Saldana), has dumped him; there’s been a death in the family; and his younger brother, Rodney (Mr. Affleck), has devolved from a sad case to a hopeless one. With four tours in Iraq behind him and a habit of gambling away money he doesn’t have, the angry, lost, confused Rodney has become a street fighter, bloodying his knuckles in bouts arranged by a local fixer, John Petty (Willem Dafoe, working his death mask grin to excellent effect).
The ex-con, the lost soldier, the dying town — Mr. Cooper stacks the deck fearlessly, as if thoroughly unaware of all the male melodramas, bruised brothers, broken working-class families and dying American towns that have populated screens for decades. What’s unusual about Mr. Cooper, though, and also appealing, is that he recycles clichés so un-self-consciously. He borrows plenty from other movies (“The Deer Hunter,” “Warrior”), but unlike the postmodern pasticheur who gets off on his own clever allusions, he steals without irony or self-protecting quotation marks. As a consequence, much as he did with his directorial debut, “Crazy Heart,” he brings an old-fashioned conviction to the material. The goods may be canned, but the sincerity with which he delivers them can make them hard to resist.
That sincerity also appears to have had a salutary effect on the actors, who all lift the film higher than its scripted words and actions. Mr. Affleck, with his bantamweight frame, broken singsong voice and furtive gaze, often registers as simultaneously younger and older than he is, like someone who, having never made it fully through adolescence, is already edging into his dotage. He can come across as intensely vulnerable on screen, which nicely works for a broken man like Rodney and makes his relationship with Russell all the more emotionally fraught. Mr. Bale, happily unencumbered by his Batman mask, opens Russell up gradually, bringing the character’s emotions — a flicker of regret, a twitch of anger — to the surface one pale, faint, filigreed movement at a time.
Things get worse, as expected. Anxious to make more money, Rodney insists on fighting in bouts arranged by a mountain desperado from, of all places, New Jersey. That would be Harlan DeGroat (Mr. Harrelson), one of those forces of evil who blaze through movies dispensing weird wisdom and brutalizing punishment while enlivening their every scene. Mr. Harrelson is an intensely physical actor whose performances feel as if they were radiating from each fiber of his being, from deep within his tightly coiled muscularity to his light-bulb head (his characters come across as dim but they invariably burn bright), and he makes Harlan feel wild, wired and alive. The character is a conceit — the villain as biblical plague — but he’s an ideal counterpoint to Russell’s slow burner.
Mr. Cooper edits like a pedagogue, at times bluntly hammering his ideas, as in a sequence in which he toggles between one of Rodney’s bloody fights and Russell hunting a deer with his Uncle Red (Sam Shepard). Like the editing, Mr. Shepard’s casting is predictable, almost formulaic, and it underscores Mr. Cooper’s weaknesses as a filmmaker. There’s nothing wrong with Mr. Shepard as a performer here and most anywhere, and there’s often a lot that’s right. He’s fun to look at, for starters — you could spend hours tooling along the byways etched into his elegantly weathered face — but too many directors use him as simplistic shorthand for American masculine decency, like the last of the Mohicans if the Mohicans were old white dudes, which is perhaps, finally, Mr. Cooper’s point.
By Peter Suderman
December 6, 2013
“Out of the Furnace” is a sad movie about sad people who have lost the fire in their lives. It’s a slow-burning film with great, naturalistic performances and an evocative sense of place, but it doesn’t generate quite enough heat to truly crackle.
The furnace of the title is literal: Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works at a steel mill in rural Pennsylvania, the same one his father worked at. But it’s about to close, leaving him, like so many working class men, with no direction and no way to sustain himself. It doesn’t help that he’s already gone to prison for killing a child in a drunken-driving accident, nor that his former flame, Lena (Zoe Saldana), has left him for the local police chief, Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker).
Other young men, like his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), are already burned out. Rodney has returned home from fighting in Iraq, full of rage and despair but without a target for his anger. Rather than work at the mill, he continues to fight, now in bare-knuckle brawls run by a local small-time criminal, John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Rodney owes money, but off-track gambling and thrown fights run by Petty aren’t paying the bills (he has a hard time actually throwing the fights). So he begs Petty to take him up to backwoods New Jersey, where a tougher breed of rural outlaws, led by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), run underground fights with bigger purses.
What happens next offers few surprises: The local hoods get more than they bargained for when they get mixed up with DeGroat’s crew, and a situation that started out unfortunate eventually turns tragic.
Most of the movie is set against the backdrop of Rust Belt Pennsylvania, which, along with a mid-film hunting sequence, appear intended to frame the film as a spiritual successor to Michael Cimino’s ‘70’s-era touchstone, “The Deer Hunter.”
As in “The Deer Hunter,” director Scott Cooper imbues the state’s small industrial town with a pointed sense of loss and decline. It’s a place that no longer has any use or purpose; like the movie’s blue-collar characters, its time is over.
The movie’s setting, and its place in time, give the movie’s title a metaphorical meaning as well: the Baze brothers are also coming out of the furnace of the recession, which decimated the local economy and their livelihoods. We first meet Russell as Barack Obama is being elected president; the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s speech praising Mr. Obama is shown in the background on a bar TV. The movie quickly jumps ahead to the present.
That gives the movie its tentative political subtext, about the forgotten and dead-end lives of working class Americans in the midst of economic decay. The choice to show Kennedy, long a hero of a certain type of factory-employed blue collar worker, seems meant to suggest the end of an era.
But “Out of the Furnace” is too beholden to the conventions of its familiar crime narrative to say much about that era, or the economy, or anything. Instead, it sticks to saying that its characters’ lives are sad. That’s a start, but it’s not enough.