There’s no getting around it: Out of the Furnace is a dirge – a mega-downer whose self-importance feels like the cinematic equivalent of a wet blanket. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. In fact, it’s quite good, boasting one of the most impressive ensemble performances of the year, not to mention enormously compelling drama, and considerable suspense.
Like, say, In the Bedroom or Little Children, Scott Cooper’s second feature is tough to watch, a fable burdened by the weight of palpable human tragedy. But amidst its bleak worldview and unforgiving plot details is a unique and understated portrait of vengeance and redemption, albeit not quite in that order, making Out of the Furnace one of the year’s most interesting films – especially if the year is not 2013, but 2008.
Christian Bale (American Hustle) stars as Russell Baze, a steel worker who tries to rebuild his life after enduring a prison stint for drunk driving. Returning from jail to discover that his father died and his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) moved on, Russell quickly realizes that he must provide stability for himself and his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), who is struggling with PTSD after his final tour in Iraq. Despite his best efforts, Rodney continues to land himself in trouble, and soon turns to illegal fighting for Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) in order to make money and work out some of his aggression. But after Rodney disappears, Russell takes matters into his own hands and tracks down Harlan in order to find his brother and mete out justice.
Cooper and his cowriter Brad Ingelsby set Out of the Furnace in 2008, and while five years – especially recent ones – don’t seem like a big deal, it’s a crucial choice for the film’s thematic underpinnings. Specifically, Russell and Rodney are the embodiment of the American Dream, or perhaps the American people, who for better or worse gained a renewed sense of hope in 2008 that things were turning around or otherwise improving. Further, Russell goes through his own trial of fire when he goes to prison, but he takes responsibility for himself and tries to rebuild his life in earnest, while Rodney comes home, scarred physically and emotionally from being at war, but himself hopeful about re-acclimating himself to society and building a new, better life.
But when Rodney disappears, he undermines that dream of self-improvement – of success – for both of them, and Russell goes off to find him, or to find the culpable party who took away their opportunities for life, liberty and happiness. Harlan, meanwhile, is a perversion of American ideals, manipulating Rodney and almost everyone around him to serve his interests, and wields his authority with cruelty and violence. The clash between the two eventually becomes one not just of physicality, but of ideology, as Russell’s optimism has been shattered, and his brother’s redemption ruined, demanding justice, even vengeance against Harlan’s more malevolent and selfish pursuit of success.
Of course, even if you view the film as a metaphor for the hope and betrayal of the American people, that doesn’t mean the film will necessarily feel more exciting or invigorating. But there definitely is something deeper going on beneath its deceptively straightforward surface, and Cooper’s consistent subtlety with the rhythms of storytelling – seldom telling, mostly showing – hints at the great wealth of themes and ideas infused in the characters and their choices. And the collective skill and substance the actors inject into their roles makes it a showcase for great performances, if nothing else.
Playing Russell, Bale creates a rich inner life for the character, whose moral center guides him both when he’s guilty and pursuing the guilty. Although he doesn’t say much, Bale (as always) communicates so much about what the character is thinking and feeling; in a mournful reunion with Lena, for example, Russell quickly learns that the two of them simply cannot relive the past, and Bale gives his sincere well wishes a heartbreak that feels absolutely devastating. As Rodney, on the other hand, Affleck is all coiled anger – a storm of emotions that he himself barely understands, much less controls – and he gives the character a dignity and a clarity, even in his confused decision making, that engenders compassion for his self-destructive plight.
As the third point in this triangle, Harrelson seems like evil personified – in an early scene, he says to Russell, “I have a problem with everybody,” and it’s clear he isn’t exaggerating. But like his co-stars, Harrelson lends the character subtle dimensions that elevate him from being a pure villain; Harrelson not only seems to understand, but sympathize with Russell’s pursuit of him, even if Harlan very much remains unapologetic about the harm he causes.
Suffice it to say that the movie isn’t a whole lot of “fun,” strictly speaking – but then again, that’s not what you’re coming to see from Cooper, or a story like this. But as something that adds up to more than the sum of its parts, the film is a significant achievement, perhaps only slightly undermined by its badge-of-honor insistence on being so unrelenting. Ultimately, Out of the Furnace expertly accomplishes its goals, but where Cooper falters is in appearing to decide preemptively that his story is important, because the film’s repeated declaration that it has something to say is what ultimately may keep audiences from hearing what that actually is.
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