7 February 2014


In 2009, Scott Cooper directed Jeff Bridges to a Best Actor Oscar, in Crazy Heart, a drama about a country-western singer. His second directorial effort, Out Of The Furnace is about as far from that film as you can get, though it's arguable that Best Actor nominee Christian Bale deserves more notice for this than for his turn in American Hustle.

Bale plays Russell Baze, a mill worker who lives and works in a depressed town in the Rust Belt, and tries to look after his brother Rodney, an Iraq war veteran who can't seem to stay out of trouble. When Russell is involved in a tragic accident, he goes to prison for five years, during which time Rodney becomes deeply involved in the underground fighting scene. When he falls in with the psychopathic Harlan DeGroat, he disappears in mysterious circumstances, and Russell is ultimately forced to take the hunt for his brother into his own hands.

First and foremost, I'm baffled about this film's apparent poor reception at the box office. It's a rock solid, grown-up drama with an incredible acting calibre behind it, right in the middle of awards season. But like Dominik's Killing Them Softly, (another 70s throwback of sorts) Out Of The Furnace is a very macho film, built around the brotherly relationship that incites so much of the film's harrowing momentum. That Russell's concern about his job security, and Rodney's bleak job prospects after returning from tours in Iraq, each seem as timely as they might have done in the era of filmmaking that the film evokes, just adds an extra dimension to the tragedy of the thing.

Although some might suggest that they probably got the wrong Batman as a screen brother to Casey Affleck, it's in the scenes between him and Bale that the emotional core is really strong. Bale, who did as good a job as any of the cast in American Hustle in breathing life into the broad cartoon characters in that film's script, really gets a lot to chew on here, and this may be the best I've seen him in a while. Cooper promised to wait until he was available, to make the film, and it's paid off.

Meanwhile, Affleck is terrific as the disenfranchised and disillusioned veteran, who can't do right for doing wrong. You pull for him to turn his life around, but the character's explosions of temper keep him stomping down the road to self-destruction, with Woody Harrelson's DeGroat waiting to meet him along the way. This scary son of a bitch is strongly established in an otherwise perfunctory prologue, which sees him lose his rag at a drive-in movie theatre, and then doesn't resurface in the story until later. You know he's bad because even Willem Dafoe's character, whose best financial and personal interest is to employ a bare-knuckle fighter for DeGroat, is telling Rodney to steer well clear.

Events unfold as they must, from there on out, and part of the fascinating, 1970s-style familiarity of the film is the way in which it takes its sweet time in getting going, and yet somehow never feels slow. Cooper, an actor-turned-director, has a whole ensemble of Oscar nominated actors to play with, in glorious widescreen 35mm film, and a very strong script (co-written with Brad Ingelsby) in which the sustained tension and character development keep you from just snapping out of the film and seeing that the story is actually pretty straightforward in itself.

All of which is not to say that there aren't weak spots. Specifically, the use of Zoe Saldana as little more than a weak spot in Russell's macho facade, as his beloved ex-girlfriend, feels disappointing, but symptomatic of the film's waste of women. One of the only prominent characters is abused by DeGroat in that prologue, which is matched at the end of the film by a one-shot epilogue that almost serves as an esoteric happy ending. Both of these bookends take the wind out of the film in one way or another, and might have been best left on the cutting room floor.

On the whole though, Out Of The Furnace is a simple story with complex characters, and the kind of film that is probably best enjoyed if you watch it with your dad, or your brother, or another male relative. Bale and Affleck are on great form, Harrelson is straight-up terrifying, and the supporting cast matches and exceeds its Oscar-worthy calibre. As a portrait of depressed, post-industrial America, it has a few rusty, recognisable tropes, but through clever, compelling writing, it makes an advantage out of its straightforward structure.

Out Of The Furnace is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Out Of The Furnace, why not share your comments below?

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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