Movie Review: Out of the Furnace
Director: Scott Cooper
Reviewed: 26 July 2014
Out of the Furnace, the new film from director Scott Cooper, has an admirable amount of restraint in its economical storytelling, graceful concision with images that call to mind director Terence Malick, as well as real stakes for its hardscrabble characters set amidst a heartbreakingly beautiful dying steel mill town in western Pennsylvania calling to mind The Deer Hunter. A film unafraid to challenge its audience by defying conventions of the genre, Out of the Furnace features a superb cast led by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck as brothers Russell and Rodney Baze: the former, a steadfast mill worker, and the later, a haunted U.S. Army veteran of four tours in Iraq. They care for their dying father alongside their uncle Red (Sam Shepard, and after a few twists and turns, both end up in situations far beyond their control. Rodney pressures bar owner and loan shark John Petty (Willem Dafoe) to support him in fighting for money, leading him to the dark unpredictable character of Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a menacing character first introduced memorably at a drive-in before a series of brutally violent acts. Harlan controls drugs and more in Ramapo, New Jersey, a sort of backwoods mafia network out of the television show Justified, and when Rodney goes missing, it is up to Russell to find him when traditional forces cannot.
I cannot speak highly enough about this cast. Shepard, Dafoe, Harrelson, and Forest Whitaker all shine in their supporting roles, as does Zoe Saldana in a role usually cast aside without much thought, but here, she serves plays an integral part of Russell's life. Woody Harrelson's performance is hypnotic with the capacity for violence at any time. The furnace of the steel mill anchors the film with its shimmering smokestacks, and ruined, weathered homes and mills exist as the backdrop for Russell's struggle. Bale can hold the screen in wordless moments, with soulful eyes with deep wells of regret.The attraction of this highly respected cast to this film is obvious. Cooper is wrestling with a morality tale of near-biblical proportions. He cross cuts from brother to brother several times in very interesting and complex ways, unafraid to let the cutting go on for long stretches that force us to ponder the similarity between the rituals both men undergo. A later section of the film cuts from Harlan DeGroat to Russell in another thought-provoking piece of editing. The film just refuses to be boring or dumb or play down to its audience. The stakes are palpable.
Violence has meaning to Russell, and his transformation only works because of the journey of the film. Cooper allows the film to breathe; we see Russell and Rodney's playful chemistry as brothers and believe the hold each brother has on the other. Pain echoes as time passes. It would have been easy for Cooper to turn Out of the Furnace into a paint-by-the-numbers revenge film with a ruthlessly violent protagonist. Instead, Russell's attempts to hold onto his humanity amidst the chaos created by Harlan DeGroat have an unquestionable tension that reverberates until the final shot of the film. Cooper infuses the screen with life and uses "Release" by Pearl Jam quite evocatively to open and end the film. I wanted to see every character's life in this film in even more detail, from Dafoe's slimy operator to Shepard's flower-growing hunter. More time spent in this universe, please.