'Out of the Furnace' Movie Review: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck Shine In Gritty Feature
Out of the Furnace, starring Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson, reimagines the classic narratives of the luckless on ill-fated journeys of revenge, set in industrial Pennsylvania and the Appalachian mountains of New Jersey. While the themes are undoubtedly familiar, the actors bring a new truth to the story brought to the screen by director Scott Cooper.
Brothers Baze – Russ and Rodney – have grown up along the Rust Belt in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, a steel mining down with a dim reality and dimmer prospects. Russ (Bale) has followed in his father’s footsteps at the mine, making a respectable living and maintaining a loving relationship with Lena (Zoe Saldana). Rodney (Affleck) is an army man, serving tour after tour in Iraq, getting stop-lost more than once. He’s damaged by what he’s seen and done and takes up off-track gambling instead of finding a stable job and income. When that doesn’t pan out, he delves into the world of bare-knuckle fighting with local bookie John Petty (Willem Dafoe), to whom he owes a considerable sum.
Bale imbues his character with a vulnerability that’s simultaneously difficult to watch and impossible to tear your eyes away from. Perhaps Bale’s most stunning scene is when Russ tracks down his girlfriend Lena after he’s released from a stint in prison for a drunk-driving accident. He wants her back and he’s optimistic that they can make another go of it. Upon learning that she’s carrying the Sheriff Wesley Barnes' (Forest Whitaker) child, there’s shock, there’s hurt and devastation, but there’s also happiness for the woman he loves, whom he knows has desperately wanted a child of her own. The complex range of emotions registers in less than a minute.
As Russ’s brother Rodney, Affleck brings a feral sense of desperation. At one point, he ends an argument with his more even-keeled elder brother with an animalistic, guttural scream. Throughout the film, the PTSD-suffering Army vet can’t help but be emotionally exposed, which ultimately leads him into the violent hills of Harlan DeGroat’s (Woody Harrelson) lawless domain. Harrelson has become a character actor of sorts. From his smaller roles, to his scene-stealing part of Haymitch in The Hunger Games, he tends to become something of a variation of Woody. Not so in Out of the Furnace. Harrelson’s signature voice is entirely masked with his Mountain man snarl; his entire being is meth kingpin DeGroat. It’s a newfangled coarseness for the actor, one nurtured by his character’s penchant for violence and a nasty drug habit.
Director Cooper, with the help of cinematographer, Masanobu Takayanagi, cloaks Out of the Furnace in decidedly gritty hues. Haunting music – including Eddie Vedder’s solo take on Pearl Jam track “Release”– makes up the film’s affecting soundtrack, with a score composed by Dickon Hinchcliffe (Winter’s Bone). Both the scenery and music compound in a way that enables the film to elicit the sense of desperation in Braddock as America hurtles past the age of industry.
There’s nothing particularly innovative or revolutionary in the story that Out of the Furnace tells, which at its most basic, is that of men both literally and figuratively fighting to exist in a dying way of life where the American Dream is more elusive than ever. What elevates the script more than anything are the visceral performances by the film’s main and supporting actors, who appear to have entrenched themselves into the utter tragedy of their characters with abandoned sincerity. For them, there’s not much hope out of the furnace.
Out of the Furnace, rated R, will be in wide release starting Dec. 6.