Out of the Furnace (2013) turned out to be a pretty good compliment to Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Both are about a struggle for meaning and dealing with rejection in sight of success. Though only one dwells on the image of a fully gutted and decapitated deer. As harrowing as that sight was, Out of the Furnace is one of the more approachable dark, violent dramas to come out this year in a very crowded field of such films. Most of these films were good to great each with their own particular angle. Stoker (2013) was about coming of age, The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) was about generations, Prisoners (2013) was about protection, The Counselor (2013) inevitability, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) love, The Iceman (2013) a psychopath, Only God Forgives (2013) justice, Dead Man Down (2013) revenge, Redemption (2013)…uh…. And the year isn’t even over yet. Only a few of these films really take the time to breathe some un-anxious emotion into the character’s lives and Out of the Furnace is one of them.
The Baze clan isn’t doing too great. Rodney Sr. (Bingo O’Malley) is on his last legs having spent his life working at the steel mill in Braddock, PA. His oldest, Russell (Christian Bale), is doing the same, working for a living and building a life with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana). Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck) is a troubled boy, between tours in Iraq and getting himself into debt with John Petty (Willem Dafoe) and trying to gamble his way out. Then things begin to unravel. Russell gets in an accident that lands him in jail for a while. Rodney Sr. dies and Rodney Jr., back from a real bad time, starts to fight for Petty in unlicensed fights. When Russell gets out, Lena’s gone. Rodney gets it in his head to fight up in Jersey where he’s heard you can make a lot of money. That means fighting for Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a lunatic that Petty tries his best to keep Rodney away from. But Petty has his debts to clear too.
Out of the Furnace doesn’t necessarily cover much new territory, but it felt as though it was covering it differently. There was a touch more reality in it for most of the film. Towards the end, when the promise made in the trailer comes due, the action slips into the traditionally paced show-down we’d all been waiting for, but there’s a lot of movie that comes before that. It isn’t so much a hard-scrabble Michael Moore scene as it is the early scenes from The Deer Hunter (1978) updated to today where the mill’s just about ready to get shut down and the bars aren’t the happy haunts they once were. Now there’s meth to go with the moonshine. There’s less community there. But there’s plenty of emotion on display.
This may be, per capita, one of the best performed films of the year–not counting Gravity (2013) because that’s not fair. Again, there’s plenty of year left and next week will see Christian Bale putting on a different regional accent and a fair few more pounds, but Bale showed something I haven’t noticed in any film I can remember: emotional vulnerability. He’s cried in films before, but never in a way that made me respond as I did for Out of the Furnace. The same goes for Zoe Saldana. Director Scott Cooper (who re-wrote Brad Ingelsby‘s script) got some of the best natural performances out of everyone. Each one, including Sam Shepard and Forest Whitaker, could be described as giving the best performance in memory. With the exception of Harrelson, who is seriously deranged, everyone feels more real than I’ve ever seen them.
This isn’t, I don’t think, an awards contender outside the acting categories–and I use “awards contender” as a proxy for superlative work. It certainly looked good (Masanobu Takayanagi), but was a bit too rough (surely by design) for me to love. There’s also the closing image which I’m not sure I fully understood. There are implications I drew, but none that improved the film. I fear that might have been a cool shot they just didn’t want to give up, but I’m open to the fact that I may have missed something. The Pearl Jam tune (“Release”) I liked quite a bit, but I can’t recall the score to mind. I did have a thought that the writing must have been excellent because I was fully engrossed in the film without ever blanching at a line of dialogue or twist in the story. Surely, credit must be shared with the actors and director there as well.
Check it out. Come for the emotion, stay for the carnage.
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