Dir: Scott Cooper • Wri: Brad Ingelsby, Scott Cooper • Pro: Michael Costigan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Kavanaugh, Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott • DOP: Masanobu Takayanagi • ED: David Rosenbloom • MUS: Dickon Hinchliffe • DES: Thérèse DePrez • CAST: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana
Out of the Furnace feels slightly like an amalgamation of several recent American films that all share similarly negative portrayals of the heartland of the US. From Killing Them Softly there’s the setting of the film during Obama’s election, from The Place Beyond the Pines we have the almost classical/Greek-Tragedy story and from Winter’s Bone the vast, cold and oppressive emptiness of small-town America and its surrounding countryside which are filled with drugs and the twisted but more realistic vision of ‘The American Dream’. While it doesn’t quite reach the same heights as those three, it comes close.
The film focuses on the lives of Russell Baze (Bale); a well-meaning, steel-mill worker who is struggling to remain the poster-boy of good old-fashioned America, and his younger brother Rodney (Affleck); a young, impulsive veteran of Iraq increasingly losing control in a country that has nothing to offer and no use for him. Eventually their story crosses paths with the psychotic Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson); the organiser of an underground, bare-knuckle boxing ring. With the central motif of the gradual obsolescence of the steel-mill and simplistic vision of ‘better days’ that it represents, Out of the Furnace is an intentionally slow-burning examination of white masculinity and its place (or lack thereof) in modern America. In other words it’s essentially an updated version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but not set in Texas and with less Leatherface.
There aren’t many problems with Out of the Furnace to complain about and it’s a point in the film’s favour that it’s otherwise strong enough that these niggling issues stand out. The big issue is the cast. Probably one of the main draws of this film is going to be the ensemble put together for the film but it’s also slightly distracting in how it attempts to give them all something worthwhile to do. The biggest disappointment, personally speaking, is that Willem Dafoe is little more than an extended cameo in a role that really feels like anyone could have played. It’s always nice to see Dafoe in anything, but none of his trademark intensity gets a chance to shine. Harrelson suffers a related problem as in their attempts to make a memorable villain, the character is overdone and comes across as a one-dimensional psychotic from an exploitation film rather than the more muted drama he’s supposed to be in. It all stems from the same issue that in such a large, talented cast, it’s a struggle to make them all memorable. So, Willem Dafoe gets a quirky, impressively dreadful hairdo, Harrelson plays a psychotic (very effectively I might add) from a different genre, and Forest Whitaker (who only really shows up in the final act) has the most distracting, almost laughable gravel-voice since Bale’s own Batman.
However, the film really is Bale’s and Affleck’s show. Affleck especially stands out as the genuinely well-meaning younger brother who is slowly eroded by both the war in Iraq and his lack of opportunity at home. Bale meanwhile plays yet another character that constantly seems on the verge of falling into the abyss. Here however is where the film stands out. Nominally, this is a revenge story and aside from the fact that it takes a surprising amount of time to get to the actual avenging part of the narrative, it plays out very differently to how similar films tend to. The characters do go to the cops first. They do wait for the system to resolve the situation. It is only at the last possible moment, when there are no other options does Bale’s character actually take matters into his own hands.
Indeed, if you come to this looking for an action film you’ll be disappointed. This is an exploration of the modern American psyche and its values from the masculine perspective through and through, and a very interesting one at that. What’s refreshing is the emphasis the film places on Bale’s character’s conception of masculinity that doesn’t fall under either of the usual tropes; he’s neither idealistic at the cost of lacking the will to take affirmative action (as Whitaker’s character is) nor is he a time bomb of self-destructive aggression (as Affleck’s character is). Instead he stands on the threshold of what modern America is turning into and spends the film struggling to reconcile the conception of how he has lived (as seen through his aging, dying father) and how that may have to be adapted or abandoned to survive.
This is a genuinely interesting and well-made film that fits neatly into a current trend in American cinema (as mentioned earlier). It’s just a pity that it suffers slightly from its eccentricities with the cast which, while not necessarily taking away from the film, are definitely a mild distraction. Additionally it’s a little clunky structurally and occasionally lapses into over-played symbolism. One sequence quite late in the story features a rather blatant ‘return to the womb’ moment which, while visually interesting in its depiction and thematically consistent with what’s happening character-wise, comes off as a little cheesy and overdone.
These complaints are rather negligible in the grander scheme of things and don’t take away from this being a very worthy film. If a harsh, bloody and nihilistic examination of the American heartland in the vein of Winter’s Bone is your bag, look no further.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Out of the Furnace is released on 31st January 2014