“Out Of The Furnace” ****1/2 (out of 5)
Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard
Written by: Scott Cooper and Brad Inglesby
Directed by: Scott Cooper
**Caution- spoilers ahead**
Recently, a professional film critic explained to me why certain films affect us more than others. While discussing the wonderful film “Once”, I confessed how emotional it made me feel, and how involuntary a reaction I had. He described the feeling as a movie ‘breaking down our defenses’, and that great films can have that effect. I had a similar reaction watching “Out Of The Furnace”- it stirred up strong emotions about family, brotherhood, and community, and does so in a straightforward, subtle way. This is one of the best films of 2013, bolstered by strong performances from Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, and Forest Whitaker, as well as a simple yet powerful script.
This is a film that gives us something generally missing in films these days- integrity as it pertains to masculinity. I am generally worn out by ‘guy’ films today- too many bulging biceps, slow-motion violent battles, and a great deal of ‘talk’ about honor, strength, loyalty, etc. Those are not bad things in small doses, but their bombastic nature has left me yearning for a film that doesn’t need brawn, per se, to define manhood. Christian Bale (in another appearance-transforming role) plays Russell Baze, a hard-working, caring, and tender man who seems to have found a particular comfort in his life. One moment of bad luck changes his life- a moment that only exists because his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) has found trouble again, and he ends up in prison. Some understand that situation more than others, i.e., a sibling that cannot escape their own demons, and it ends up affecting their own lives. However, we do it, because it’s the right thing to do; we should take care of our family, and at least afford the opportunity for change to troubled family members. After all, we cannot choose our family, but we can choose what to do about it.
Russell Baze accepts his fate in prison, and makes the necessary changes to better himself in preparation for release. When Russell is released from prison, his world has changed- his father has died, his girl couldn’t wait for him and now dates the town sheriff (Forest Whitaker), but his brother is still in a state of flux. Rodney can’t hold down a job, gambling, drinking, and fighting to make ends meet and escape the demons he has from 4 tours of Army duty. The two brothers need each other, and Rodney seems to finally realize that when he takes ‘one last fight’, the famous last words of every boxer and cat burglar.
The local greasy town bookie (Willem Dafoe), cares for Rodney, but cares about himself and money more. Therefore, he agrees to send Rodney to a fight in the backwoods of New Jersey, where the stakes and money are higher. Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson) runs things in that area, including the local drug and fight scene. Harlan is a sociopathic, redneck tough guy, played by the only person I can think of in that role. It’s menacing enough, sure, but there is no nuance- the man is a straight up psychopath, and a mean one at that. It’s his scene, and therefore his rules (although I imagine anywhere for him is considered his dominion). Therefore, it’s no surprise when Rodney finds himself in danger at the hands of Harlan, apparent King of the New Jersey Woodsmen.
A lesser film might have made the decision to make this a straight revenge story following this moment, but director Scott Cooper (also of the very good “Crazy Heart”) elevates the material. It seems like a virtual certainty that once Russell learns of the bad news about his brother that a bloodbath will ensue. Instead, the film responds with subtlety- Russell and his uncle (Shepard) simply get in a truck, armed with the information they have and a few bullets, and head straight into the hornet’s nest for Rodney. We can call it revenge, but I think this movie tells us that they believe they are simply doing right by their family. The understated love for each other that this family shows on-screen lends credence to this thought, and helps me understand why they would risk their own lives and well-being instead of allowing the seemingly helpless police force take care of business.
Another thing worth mentioning- while Rodney is at Harlan’s mercy, Russell and his uncle hunt deer, which gives the movie two opportunities. First, we can see how deftly they move about the woods, using patience and cunning to trap a deer, and the respect they give the process. It also gives us a chance to see Russell pause as he stares down a deer in his sights. We sense in that moment the clarity and peace he has, and the first part of his life, with all of the pain and joy he’s had coming to a stopping point, which then leads into the second stanza of his life, and the pain he’s about to experience. It’s a powerful moment looking back on the film, one that will stay with me.
There’s also something to be said about the setting of the film, our nation’s rust belt, and changes taking place there as the steel industry grows stagnant. Characters even talk about the changes briefly, as Russell himself works at the local mill. An entire way of life in this area of the country is close to becoming irrelevant; I’m not sure the director wants us to think about the societal impact of outsourcing, but it certainly provides a parallel and relevant backdrop to the story of two brothers, one clinging to the old guard of manual labor, and the other who can’t find a solid second option, thus turning to the underbelly of the area. When I look back at this film as a whole, the setting certainly contributes to the powerful reaction I had.
I blame myself for not being incredibly excited to see this film- the trailers, using Pearl Jam’s “Release” as background, gave me the idea that we’d get a typical story about backwoods justice and bombastic themes of revenge. Instead, this is a powerful, personal film that succeeds on the conviction of the script and the subtlety of the performances. This time, when a trailer touts all of the Academy Award wins/nominations, it’s certainly applicable. As I mentioned before, we can’t always choose our family, but we can choose what to do about that. I can’t think of another film that gives a better example of this, and treats the material with such respect, not to mention a more accurate depiction of what honor and integrity and manhood should be. This is one of the best films of the year, and I’m happy to be wrong about it.
**note- Listen to the “I Hate Critics” podcast, up early to mid next week, and hear myself, Bob Zerull, and professional film critic Sean Patrick discuss this very film. Visit http://www.ihatecritics.net to see more, or like them or myself on Facebook. Follow I Hate Critics on Twitter @H8Critics, or myself at @FFPerspective. Thank you so much for listening/reading!**