Release Date: December 6th, 2013 (US); January 29th, 2014 (UK)
Genre: Crime; Drama; Thriller
Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson
Scott Cooper’s film tells the story of two brothers left short-handed by the frankness of life, but more specifically it’s a look into the psyche of one sibling, Christian Bale’s Russell, emotionally shot and physically trapped. Out of the Furnace itself received a rough ride upon release. The cast, wasted, supersede the inefficiently constructed narrative, seemed to be the most common argument. It’s too slow, too poorly paced. Quite the opposite. The film is marvellously paced and the narrative is steeped in authentic poignancy. Sure the screenplay would benefit from a dose of balance, but Out of the Furnace is not a missed opportunity. It’s a really, really good piece of cinema.
A heart-on-sleeve type of guy, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works three jobs. Aside from earning a meagre living at the nearby mill — the same one that has rendered his father incapacitated — Russell cares for his ailing dad whilst also attempting to keep his younger brother’s mind straight. Rodney is a solider whose deployments to Iraq are as scattered as the head on his shoulders. The brothers just about get by, but their lives are quickly shattered when a horrific accident suddenly opens demon-infested floodgates.
Realism seeps into every frame, every projected wooden crevice. We’re slap-bang in the centre of a hereditary coal and steel town, North Braddock, Pennsylvania and the camera rams this home. A huge factory is often shown looming in the background, the greyish smoke pillowing skyward a constant reminder of toxicity and waste. It hosts the eponymous furnace and endeavours to promote the air of struggle of its nearby citizens, but also their honest willingness to work. Already we’re drawn to Russell who embodies this mentality, a grafter by trade. Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography is musky — you’d be forgiven for any eye-rubbing to remove dust — and perfectly captures the mood of the town; filled with hard labourers and harder folk. It screams ‘get me out of here’.
Russell is a hearty soul, a trait that beams as he interacts with those close to him. Lena is his girlfriend at the beginning and their playfulness is infectious. Uncle Gerald, or ‘Red’, is another whom we watch engage positively with Russell. But it’s the latter’s relationship with his wayward brother Rodney that’s most genuine. They share an at times awkward yet always nurturing bond, one that is believable partly due to how Bale and Casey Affleck play it, but we’re also convinced by the harshness of reality and their subsequent eternal earnestness as a duo. Not much is going according to plan but these two remain decent guys with admirable qualities who are not impervious to the odd mistake. (Some mistakes very serious — Scott Cooper doesn’t shirk away from complexity).
Existing subserviently in manner but not meaning to this sibling relationships is Russell’s own personal battle with day-to-day existence. He’s mentally more mature than his brother; at one point it’s suggested that Rodney “might be safer over in Iraq” than wandering the chalky streets of North Braddock. The screenplay simmers patiently, as does Cooper’s precise direction, allowing us to connect with Russell and his unluckiness. But even as pillar after pillar collapses in the manual worker’s life, we’re afforded the chance to acknowledge the sincerity of each problem because they’re all completely applicable within the prevailing context.
In Russell, Cooper revives the teetering tragedy of Crazy Heart’s Otis Blake. In some ways the two mirror each other: in their jobs, slaving away without much financial reward; in their protectiveness, one for a son he never had and one for a brother he fears losing; in their mentality, both close to defeat yet deeply defiant and inspired by externalities. Out of the Furnace is the director’s second character study of two and is equally as effective as the first. The camera likes to linger on glances and facial expressions — not Russell’s exclusively — and so we’re able to feed off of each characters’ strained thoughts and the cast’s wholesome portrayals.
Christian Bale does for Casey Affleck here what Mark Wahlberg done for Bale in The Fighter. He underplays the performance, clearing room for Affleck’s hysterics. These range from anxiously proud to uncomfortably harrowing, but are consistently sterling. Bale’s is certainly the toughest role because restraint is absolutely key. He nails it. However, as Rodney, Affleck is stand out performer. Which is some feat considering the truly excellent efforts relayed by the remaining cast members. Woody Harrelson appears as Harlan DeGroat, an invasive and psychotic drug dealer whom Rodney owns money to. Harrelson’s recruitment is a great choice, his character a real baddie. A grizzled, rugged no good son of a bitch. Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Willem Dafoe complete the star-studded selection and the trio each donate valid performances.
If there is a fault to be picked and presented, it’s the unfortunate imbalance in narrative. The runtime is fine at almost two hours, but over half of that is enlisted as set up leaving only around 50 minutes for retaliation. The problem is not catastrophic — it likely would be in lesser hands — but it does dent an otherwise foolproof outing, incurring unevenness as opposed to equity. In an attempt to disguise the issue, we’re subject to interplayed cuts between scenes that actually do end up harmonising well together.
Out of the Furnace is another winning film from Scott Cooper. It’s worth pointing out the effective soundtrack that shifts between a Western twang and a mellow ambience, and one that is capped off by Pearl Jam’s Release. For that’s what the piece is all about, release. A very sombre picture with sporadic healing tendencies — though not enough — it is the recognisable mundaneness that really hits home.
Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider
Images copyright (©): Relativity Media
16 thoughts on “Out of the Furnace (2014)”
Excellent review! I am so glad to see that you enjoyed it so much, it was on my top ten films list for last year. Great little piece of cinema!
Ahh that’s awesome to hear Zoë. I feel vindicated in my admiration now, ha! It seemed to get a rough ride when released. Thanks!
I saw that people were a bit touch and go with it, but I thought it was such a great slow burn film with fantastic performances, and I liked the end (so many people are complaining about it).
Me too! The final shot is very ambiguous, which is a nice switch up from what happens before.
Niiiiice man, good work. Still need to check this out.
Cheers mate, it’s a good’n!
The cast is who really makes this movie work. Cooper’s script is a bit too conventional to really go anywhere deep or interesting, whereas the cast seems to have him more covered in that regard. Good review.
I like the mundaneness of the script. I think that’s the point, to usher in a sense of frank reality. Agreed, the performances are excellent. Cheers Dan!
I really couldn’t have put it any better myself Adam, what a great review. I think this was a supremely underrated and overly dismissed film, but in some ways that makes my nights enjoying this gem on Netflix that much more. . . I don’ know. . . . .satisfying? 🙂 I sound smug saying that. Maybe I am. I loved this movie man
Not smug, just an appreciation of greatness. 😉 Having read the not-so-flattering reviews beforehand, this caught me off guard in a very positive way. I just think it all gels masterfully and makes sense. Cheers Tom!
Agreed that the film captures realism, that the performances are great, and that the score is top-flight.
But that’s where our agreement ends. I think this a wasted opportunity, because the characters are far too thinly sketched.
I managed to get really quite invested in Bale’s character, who I think is the crux when it comes to liking (or disliking) everyone else. There are one or two flaws, but I do reckon this is a hearty effort.
Bale’s character is certainly the most important. And was therefore the one with whom I had the biggest issue. I thought even he is relatively unlayered, because they don’t really bother to investigate his inner being.
Don’t you think that by chronologically relaying devastating moments in his life, juxtaposed with his sombre demeanour, the film establishes a sense that he’s slowly losing grasp? Cordial acceptance turns to regret turns to anger, and then finally defeat. Which leads to the blunt ending – emotionless, almost.
I guess it’s just one of things that works for some but not others. Ah, cinema!
I didn’t get that watching it, no. Partially, perhaps, because Bale’s portrayal of the character doesn’t change all that much. He’s somber from beginning to end, with a few moments of anger thrown in.
Or maybe it’s the filmmaking technique. Cooper’s approach here is to remain detached, which, in my opinion, keeps us at a certain distance from goings-on.
Either way, I never saw the changes you reference.
So. Like you said . . . different art hits different people differently. 🙂
Intriguing to hear another view! Love that about film, and art in general. 🙂