Small-town Pennsylvania never looked so somber, which is one of the elements that makes Scott Cooper’s second film Out of the Furnace so interesting. Within the harrowing dinginess of Braddock, PA is immense beauty. One of the key aspects of storytelling is putting your characters in a situation or environment where they struggle; co-writers Cooper and Brad Ingelsby manage to do both, which is both an advantage and detriment to the film.
After reading this article about Braddock’s declining steel industry and the efforts given to rebuild it by Mayor John Fetterman, Cooper was inspired to set his next film in that very town. As the picture begins you see Midnight Meat Train playing on a drive-in movie screen, our antagonist Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) opens his car door to vomit on the ground because of a hamburger he had eaten. The scene leads to him abusing his date and then kicking the snot out of a guy who makes an attempt to stop the situation. There is no other purpose to the scene other than to show us how bad of a guy Harlan is. You see him throwing his fist into this man’s face repeatedly, only to give you the impression that the tone may become lighter. It does not.
We cut to black and the beautiful “Release” by Pearl Jam plays (it could not have been a better song choice) as the title card comes up and we get to see what this small-town is like; there is not much to it, but that is what makes it so interesting. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi perfectly captures this gorgeous, poignant environment filled with blue-collard workers and lost souls. Within the decrepit houses and hills of Braddock is history. Years of work has gone into the town’s function and Takayanagi manages to show that with his images. Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works at the steel mill, lives with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana), and tries to take care of his dying father. There really is not much to his character at first, but when his brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), gets involved things begin to fall apart.
Rodney is an Army veteran about to be stop-lossed for the fourth time in Iraq, but when he returns there is no work and it does not help that he is stubborn about working at the mill with his brother. So Rodney turns to bare-knuckle brawling for bar owner John Petty instead. Eventually when Rodney can not afford to pay Petty for his debt, Russell does out of brotherly love, nothing else. He has a drink, pays Petty, and drives home only to hit a car and kill its driver and child in the back seat. Russell is sent to jail (where we do not really know how much time has passed), but Rodney is there to bring him the news of his father’s death, and of course Lena leaves him.
Even once Russell gets out, his sorrowfulness never ceases, but he tries. Visiting his father’s grave, repainting his house, and even spying on Lena as she teaches her class, are all ways he tries to cope, but in such a small town you get a sense of how difficult it is to “move on.” This is about the moment when the film will divide people, because it becomes almost two separate films with different tones that have a connection. The first is an art house with Russell trying to deal with losing everything he had, including the steel mill that will be shutting down because of the market crash in 2008. The second is Rodney’s downfall as a War veteran who has seen things he can not un-see, and is left with nothing but to fight for his life when he forces Petty to call up Harlan and schedule a match with one of his fighters. Depending on subjectivity, you may like where it goes or hate it. I loved it.
There is not much to the plot-wise storytelling of Out of the Furnace which is its biggest fault. You never get a feeling that it is driving somewhere with a resolution you will come to adore; it just sort of happens as you would expect, but that still is not all that bad because of the actors portraying these flawed characters. Christian Bale gives one of my favorite performances I have seen him in. His Russell goes through three specific transformations and you feel every one of them. It is subtle, but brilliant and he borrows a lot from Robert De Niro as well as the film cribbing from The Deer Hunter more than it probably should. I have always had a love-hate relationship with Casey Affleck; I have always found him to be the winy younger brother of Ben and it was not until he started working with Steven Soderbergh on the Ocean’s films that he gained charisma, and acting chops. Look at his earlier work and then Gone Baby Gone, you will see the difference. And here he is giving one of his best performances to date as a complicated kid, essentially. When he gives his explanation for what is going through his mind, you feel for him. “What has this Country done for me?,” he exclaims to his brother, and you really can’t answer that.
If there was one villain of the year I could pick out as the best it’s Woody Harrelson’s Harlan. I have been craving a sick, ravenous, madman as the antagonist and the alcoholic, inbred, drug-addict that is Harlan couldn’t be more perfect. You feel immediate tension with every scene Harrelson is in, wondering what could make him snap. It is a wonderful feeling especially with seeing him only two weeks ago in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire playing an almost exact opposite personality. This is the most threatening I’ve seen Harrelson since Natural Born Killers.
Of course this does not go without some underdeveloped characters. With what scenes Zoe Saldana is in, she shines, especially one involving her and Russell on a bridge, which was the moment I realized his story was not going to get better. You start to feel the tension of a love-triangle setting in when she starts dating Forest Whitaker, but that never once comes to fruition and I’m glad for that. Whitaker is fine, but he is unfortunately just playing himself and that is a shame when you notice that that character could have been played by anybody else, or just written better. With the misstep of these underdeveloped characters it never bothered me enough to fully dislike that aspect of the film. I always came back to knowing this was Russell and Rodney’s story, these characters are just there to move their emotions forward.
When you come down to all the aspects of Out of the Furnace, it is an actor’s movie, plain and simple. The plot is wobbly depending on perception, but if you are with it, you won’t let go. The second half of the film is heartbreaking and revengeful all at the same time; I just wish a tighter script would have been possible. Aside from The Deer Hunter I had many remembrances of last year’s Killing Them Softly especially with the quick political aspect of the effect on the Rust Belt. This treats that message more smoothly rather than heavy-handing the homes that were lost due to our Country’s downfall. Out of the Furnace, for me, was a perfect second outing for Scott Cooper as a director and I can not wait for what’s to come.
The Good: every performance particularly Bale, Harrelson, and Affleck; cinematography, and Cooper’s direction.
The Bad: there could have been tighter writing with both stories, or at least similar tones.
The Ugly: what these characters do to each other (in a good way), and a couple underdeveloped characters can detract from the experience.