Out of the Furnace is not going to be fore everyone. There’s nothing groundbreaking about the story it weaves, or about the way the movie was made. Heck, despite a slate of stars that includes two Oscar winners and four other who have been previously nominated, I’ll be a little surprised if it sees much of a box office draw. This isn’t that kind of movie.
This movie is a tragedy in the most dignified sense of the term, a story that hearkens back to Greek and Shakespearean classics. It’s a nearly pitch-perfect telling of an intense character drama that is expertly underplayed everywhere it ought to be and still delivers more from its characters than most films ever have the guts to attempt. No sense in being coy: this is a very good movie.
Out of the Furnace is the story of Russell Baze (Christian Bale) and his younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Russell is the quintessential American man. The movie is set in small town Pennsylvania against a gorgeous backdrop of the Appalachian forests and hill country. Russell works hard at the steel mill to and takes care of his family, namely his ailing father and Rodney, a three-tour veteran of Iraq with a penchant for getting into trouble now that he’s back home. Namely, Rodney has gotten into bare-knuckle boxing via John Petty (Willem Dafoe), a local bookie/fixer/generally unsavory type. After leaving for one fight with some folks the next town over, Rodney never returns and Russell is left trying to find out what happened to his brother and how to bring him home safely.
That’s about as far as I’m going to go into the plot, not because there’s some huge twist – this isn’t an Inception type movie where the intrigue is predicated what’s going to happen next – but because this is a movie all about character progression, and the plot works in beautifully with the characters to move them through time and space. To expose the plot is, in many ways, to expose the characters, and they are the premier enjoyment in Out of the Furnace. The antipodal journeys of Russell and Rodney is particularly compelling. The movie makes no attempt to disguise what really are straightforward arcs, but seeing exactly how it pulls those (especially Russell’s) progressions off is a sight to behold. The logline above can barely begin to contain what aren’t really intricacies in the plot so much as a collection of events that all feel very necessary to building these very complete figures. About halfway through the movie it felt like anything which could be construed as an overarching plot was still just getting started (and not in any sort of negative way – I was never bored in the least), but Out of the Furnace never feels rushed. It would have been very easy for this film to drive headlong into intense mystery/thriller territory, but to its credit it stays small and personal, so much so that nearing the end I began to fear it wouldn’t have room to build to a satisfying emotional climax. And then it did anyway, in a way the felt 100% authentic to everything that had come before.
To that point, both the casting of this movie and the acting are absolutely spot on. Bale is somewhere between Batman the emaciated figure he cut in The Fighter, a capable but decidedly limited, and does a great job showcasing Russell’s earnestness and frustration trying to corral, and later find, Rodney. Affleck hits the right combo of youthful tough guy bravado and actual world weariness that befits a young veteran, Dafoe is is usual slimy self, and Sam Shepard, who plays Russell’s uncle, does wonders to ground this film in reality. Then there’s Woody Harrelson, who plays Harlan DeGroat, the film’s chief antagonist. Though I suppose it could be said of many of Harrelson’s roles, it’s never felt more true than here: it’s hard to believe this is the same actor who played a happy-go-lucky bartender in Cheers. Harrelson owns the part as the very bad news DeGroat. That’s not even to mention Forest Whitaker and Zoe Saldana, who both turn in quality performances as the local police chief and Russell’s ex, respectively.
While acting nominations for Bale and Harrelson, especially, seem possible, I’ll be a little bit surprised if any of the cast receives serious awards consideration. This shouldn’t be taken for a lack of quality; none of these roles are especially flashy, but they all just fit. And again, that’s what characterizes this movie – everything fits, from the score, to the cinematography, to the nearly 1980s feel of the setting (this isn’t a period piece, but modern technology feels appropriately sprinkled into the context.) There’s also some wonderful thematic interplay the characters and the juxtaposition of their steel mill town in the middle of such natural beauty. Much of the film is about man’s descent into animalistic depravity, but this is set against a decidedly un-natural factory that makes many of heinous acts possible.
I don’t want to suggest that this is a perfect movie that director Scott Cooper has crafted (although it is one that feels very in line with Crazy Heart, his most recent film). There are hiccups here and there with camera and dialogue, as well as a few scenes that come across as a bit excessive or extraneous, but these are minor technical aberrations in film that gets the big ideas – character, plot, theme, – so very, very right. The slightly bigger issues are the exactly three moments that don’t feel so unified as the rest of the picture. Unfortunately, one of these is part of the premise for the last two thirds of the story and the other two come in the conclusion, but none of them are so egregious as to do significant harm to the enjoyment of the movie. Rather, it’s just disappointing that those key points weren’t quite as smooth as the rest of the picture.
The Verdict: 5 out of 5
As I said at the top, this is a very good movie. If you were being particular, you could probably dock a point for the sum of minor technical errors and those few bigger moments which aren’t quite spot on, but for me, so much of this movie was so well put together that those things didn’t end up mattering so much. There’s nothing about this movie that’s flashy, it’s all just premier quality. Although Crazy Heart was ultimately redemptive, Scott Cooper is emerging as a star of the modern tragedy. Out of the Furnace is a beautiful and horrific look at human nature that skillfully avoids sensationalism via a marriage of excellent character progression and a smart, understated plot.