Written by Brad Inglesby and Scott Cooper
Directed by Scott Cooper
In the last few years, American filmmakers have turned to the bleak parts of the country, both to explore the sharp, darkened corners of our current psyche, and to depict a world stuck in the past. Films like Winter’s Bone, Killing Them Softly, and A Single Shot, among others, attempt to mine pathos for what amounts to a forgotten stretch of the nation, peopled with hard-bitten survivors desperately trying to get by and possibly escape. And now we can add to this list the tightly wound thriller Out of the Furnace. It is a film set in the present, but one marked by the past, both in its storytelling and visual presentation.
Christian Bale, mostly, avoids going over the top and instead opts to play his character, Russell Baze, as something close to a ghost walking the earth. Russell lives in the Rust Belt of Pennsylvania, going to work at the local mill (rumored to be closing soon), seeing his loving girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), seeing his sick father, and checking in on his scrappy younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). It often seems like Russell is all that’s keeping Rodney, an Iraq War vet, out of trouble, but everything changes when the older man inadvertently causes a fatal car accident, soon winding up in jail. A few years later, he’s out and everything’s changed; chiefly, Rodney’s paying off debt by getting into bare-knuckle fighting overseen by two different criminals, one who’s friendly enough (Willem Dafoe) and another who’s aptly described as a “nasty son of a bitch.”
That character is played by Woody Harrelson with vicious gusto, a madman who’s apparently soared to a position of dubious power in the backwoods of New Jersey in part because he doesn’t waste time talking to the people who challenge him, when he could just beat them within an inch of their lives. Harrelson’s sociopathic take on this lunatic is a bit similar to his work in Natural Born Killers, though it’s arguably a little disquieting to place this performance next to his handful of scenes in the new Hunger Games movie. The ensemble is, in general, quite solid here, but Harrelson gets and rips into the showiest role suitably well. Bale, Affleck, Dafoe, and even Saldana look lean, almost gaunt, as if the stuck-in-the-1980s world in which they live has sucked them dry over the years. Harrelson’s not much heavier than the rest, but he looks a bit more well-fed, which only aids him in bringing bloody beatdowns on anyone in his path.
Co-writer and director Scott Cooper, with Out of the Furnace, has moved far from the territory and tone of his last film, the laid-back country-music drama Crazy Heart. The first half of the film, as crafted by Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby, unfolds directly: Russell goes to the mill, he goes home, he goes to check in on his brother, he gets in a car accident, he goes to jail, etc. There’s no elongated stretch where we see him shift from being arrested to convicted; one moment, he’s in the mill, and the next, he’s wearing a prison jumpsuit. Once he gets out, Russell recedes into the background, a quiet observer whose time in prison has changed him in ways he can’t verbalize; this is visualized in a lengthy sequence in the middle in which Russell and his uncle go deer hunting, intercut with Rodney traveling to a hellish bare-knuckle brawl overseen by Harrelson’s nutjob. The contrast in how a relatively innocent victim is picked for the slaughter works best because of how patient and increasingly tense the sequence is. Cooper, here and elsewhere, doesn’t cut the scenes short but lets them unfold to their breaking point.
In many respects, Out of the Furnace is a very old-fashioned film. The scenes where Rodney’s being encouraged to take a dive in the brawls hearken back to boxing pictures of the 1930s, and Russell’s difficulties in integrating back to the real world feel like a tribute to all sorts of prison movies. What makes Out of the Furnace work so well, in major part, is that the cast is so talented and on their game that they elevate the material when it threatens to become too familiar, if extremely gruesome. But it’s appropriate that this film has so many creative ties to the past, as it’s one that’s set in a world that doesn’t feel like part of the 21st century. Even the opening scene, taking place at a drive-in movie theater, is out of a time capsule, a time when such theaters thrived. Those few that remain, like the characters here, now hang on to survive before they fade and recede into memory.
– Josh Spiegel