Out of the Furnace (2013)
“Sometimes your battles choose you.”
Director: Scott Cooper
Cast: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana
Synopsis: When Rodney Baze mysteriously disappears and law enforcement doesn’t follow through fast enough, his older brother, Russell, takes matters into his own hands to find justice.
Slow and brooding, Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace is more of a character study which has a lot to say about the social and economic state of America than the dark crime thriller its publicity might have you believe it is. It makes for compelling viewing if its overwhelming bleakness doesn’t turn you off, and overcomes its familiar plot with a sense of detachment from its characters which enables it to take a step back from them and study them at leisure. That some of the characterisation isn’t as convincing as it might have been does blunt the movie’s impact, however, and the way in which it chooses to refuse any kind of emotional relief for its essentially decent lead character leaves something of a bitter taste following a powerful — if unnecessary — final shot.
Bale (The Dark Knight, American Hustle) plays Russell Baze, a blue collar worker living in Pennsylvania with his partner, Lena (Zoe Saldana). Russell’s dad (Bingo O’Malley) is terminally ill, and his younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck — Ocean’s Twelve, ParaNorman), a troubled Iraqi vet, owes money to local hood John Petty (Willem Dafoe — Odd Thomas). Russell is a good man, a selfless soul, but when he visits Petty to pay off part of his younger brother’s ’s debt, Petty forces a drink upon him which puts him over the limit. On the drive home, Russell’s involved in a car smash which, although it’s not his fault, results in him doing time for drunk driving.
Things have changed when Russell is finally released. His dad has died, his brother is back from another tour of duty in Iraq, and Lena has left him for Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker — Johnny Handsome). Slowly, though, Russell begins to pick up the pieces of his life. Rodney isn’t so quick to adapt following his discharge from the Marines, however, and pressures Petty to get him a fight with a vicious underground bare-knuckle fighting ring organised by meth-addicted crime lord, Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson — Rampart, The Hunger Games). When Rodney and Petty fail to return from a fight and Russell feels that Barnes’ insistence on following procedure is doing nothing to find out what happened to his kid brother, Russell decides it’s time to take things in hand.
There can’t be many lead characters in the movies who are treated as unfairly as Russell Baze is in Out of the Furnace. Usually in movie dramas, there’s a balance when it comes to the treatment of important characters, an evidence of cause and effect whereby the fate of a character is determined to some degree by their actions. The black hats die, the white hats triumph with body parts intact and loved ones by their side. It’s not that way for Baze, however, who, in the course of the movie loses pretty much everything that’s important to him. But, then Out of the Furnace is a story of disillusion; a story of steel mills closing because it’s cheaper to buy from China, of soldier’s lives destroyed by stop-loss tours of duty because of spurious claims by their government. Russell Baze is the American everyman, and he’s getting shafted in every imaginable way. The consequences are both inevitable and inescapable, and because Cooper refuses to flinch from them, Out of the Furnace ultimately becomes morose, uncomfortable viewing from which it’s impossible to look away.
The film is boosted by an incredible cast which serves as evidence of the quality of Cooper’s writing (with Brad Ingelsby) and the strength of his reputation after the Oscar-winning Crazy Heart. Harrelson is truly scary as the animalistic DeGroat, a perpetually angry man who, in an early encounter with Russell, confides that ‘I’ve got a problem with everyone,’ and proves once again that he’s just as much at ease playing a totally amoral character like DeGroat as he is a simple-minded barman or a gay society ladies escort. Affleck also does well communicating the younger Boze brother’s simmering disaffection. Only Zoe Saldana struggles in the part of an underwritten and inconsistent character who feels as if it’s been included simply because Cooper felt the need for some female participation. Lena may have had compelling reasons for abandoning Russell but they’re never satisfactorily explained, so she comes across as fickle and shallow.
Out of the Furnace is one of those movies that will polarise opinion. A familiar storyline can be immeasurably enhanced by sophisticated characterisation and realistic situations, and Out of the Furnace so nearly gets it right that it would be churlish to criticise it too harshly for not quite coming up to scratch.