Out of the Furnace: Taking the Heat

Russell (Christian Bale) contentedly works in the mill like their father did, while brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) joins the Army in the drama Out of the Furnace opening Dec. 6

by Sandra Olmsted

Atmospheric with a strong sense of place, director Scott Cooper’s second feature film, Out of the Furnace, uses cinematic language created by Masanobu (Silver Linings Playbook) Takayanagi’s stunning cinematography, David Rosenbloom intuitive editing, and composer Dickon (Winter’s Bone ) Hinchliffe’s moody original score to captivate the audience.

Meanwhile, Cooper slowly delves into the lives of the two Baze brothers from Braddock, Pennsylvania, a diminished mill town which offers few opportunities if one can’t or won’t work at the local mill. While Russell (Christian Bale) contentedly works in the mill like their father did, Rodney (Casey Affleck) joins the Army to avoid that fate. Although the brothers could be at odds over their different choices, they remain, despite even more disparate choices, loving, supportive family. Russell cares for their ailing father and spends time with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana), nursing their relationship along in difficult times; meanwhile, Rodney prefers the uncertainty of illegal, bare-knuckle boxing for small purses.

A backwoods New Jersey gang, headed up by Harlan DeGroat, a hopped-up hillbilly (Woody Harrelson in a marvelously creepy turn), controls the illegal boxing, drug production and distribution, and murder in the area. Like Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter, DeGroat has something tattooed on his hands, something that matches more literally his character. There’s no ambivalence in the character of DeGroat, and no need, as Mitchum did, to masquerade as a padre, because DeGroat is the patriarch of this violent gang, by virtue of his irredeemable, evil character. With their own system of “justice,” any slight or double-cross, real or imagined in DeGroat’s drug addled, “inbred” brain, validates violence.

While Russell’s father dies and his brother struggles with things he’s seen and done during multiple tours of duty in Iraq by getting beat up, Russell can’t catch a break. Life seems to be out to get him, despite being a steady, law-abiding, compassionate guy. Russell is involved a terrible car accident and looses Lena to the local sheriff, Chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). Because Rodney has run up a huge debt to John Petty (Willem Dafoe), the local, somewhat benign bookie, he demands a chance at the bigger purses offered by DeGroat. Although John Petty tries to talk him out of it, Petty is also in debt to DeGroat. It’s a formula for disaster.

Cooper, who co-wrote the script with Brad Ingelsby, gets terrific performances from his actors, but takes more than an hour to setup Rodney’s disappearance into the New Jersey back country. Bale’s Russell exudes the defeatism of a man who settled, and at the same time Bale captures the pain that Russell feels over every loss until he believes he is the only person capable of finding his brother.

Affleck channels the post traumatic psychology of Rodney’s need to numb his painful war memories by receiving and inflicting pain. The cliché of the hunting scene intercut with Rodney’s plight is heavy handed and attempts a The Deer Hunter-esque look the Iraq war. The script does little to explain why Russell should pay such a heavy price when the accident seems the fault of the other driver, or why Rodney never mentions any military base or his GI benefits when many people in his situation join the military precisely for them. Still these actors shine in this character-driven film, as does the entire cast. Zoe Saldana’s goodhearted Lena overflows with the emotions of bring in love with two men; Forest Whitaker is solid in the small role of a lawman, and Willem Dafoe’s complex John Petty is likable. Tom Bower as Petty’s funky bartender Dan Dugan and Sam Shepard  as Uncle Red Baze also deliver exceptional performances.

In theaters Dec. 6, Out of the Furnace, a maddeningly slow character study from Relativity Media, is rated R for strong violence, language and drug content and runs 116 minutes. More of Olmsted’s reviews are available online at <www.thecinematicskinny.com>.


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