Review: OUT OF THE FURNACE And Into The Fire
"When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose..."
A reference to that famous line from "Like a Rolling Stone" by Bob Dylan might seemingly be more at home in a review of Inside Llewyn Davis, the early 1960s folk music odyssey from the Coen brothers. But it holds truer of Christian Bale's character in Out of the Furnace, the new ultra-dour revenge film from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper.
Bale plays Russell Baze, a shopworn, salt-of-the-earth man of few words. These days, Russell is coming by his grizzled demeanor honestly, working long days as an unassuming handyman, scraping lead paint from door jams and dealing with old gutters while up on ladders. An honest day's work is the limit of his aspirations. He's a good man, a church-going man, who doesn't want trouble and loves the woman in his life, played by Zoe Saldana. Nonetheless, when Out of the Furnace opens with its stark, overcast establishing shots of rural Braddock, Pennsylvania (a smaller and more depressing version of neighboring Pittsburgh), it already feels like this man has nothing to lose. By the end of the film, it will actually be true. But that is far from the end for Russell...
Casey Affleck plays Rodney Baze Jr., Russell's trouble-magnet of a younger brother. Rodney's back from a tour of duty in Iraq, and all the worse for wear. Unable to do much else with his stunted self, he winds up taking part in a brutal, bare-knuckles, street fighting and gambling racket. Rodney's arrangement is to take the fall in fights, but when it comes down to it, he just can't. Despite the warnings from his brother, this situation swells up into some legitimate trouble with various thugs, bookies, and criminals (including Willem Dafoe and Woody Harrelson). It isn't long before Russell's got to get involved with this unrelenting Appalachian underworld.
There's nothing in Scott Cooper's only other film, Crazy Heart, a country music drama that led Jeff Bridges to Oscar gold, to prepare audiences for the unflinching harshness of this film. There are, however, connections between Bridges' troubled and washed-up singer/songwriter and Bale's stoic modern Lot. Both are world weary, both have seen better days. They are solitary men who may let their personal weakness (namely, drinking) get to them at times, but ultimately struggle fiercely to be better men, and to do the right things. For Russell, that means having to decide the degree to which his story should play out like an unrelenting grindhouse revenge movie.
From the outset, Furnace works hard to convince its presumably sophisticated audiences that this is nothing less than stark reality being portrayed. No one is cut the kind of breaks that most other films of this ilk would typically cut. The bleak atmosphere of long-suffering Braddock is helped along by Cooper's occasional shots of power line clusters, neglected fencing, and barely churning steel mills, all accompanied by Eddie Vedder's effective droning.
The film's opening moments belong to Harrelson, who, once he's done brutalizing his date and then an interloper or two at a local drive-in, disappears from the film for a while. But his opening actions leave their mark, and when his character - quite possibly his most vile to date (and that's saying something) - comes back into the picture, there's no question that this freebasing tattooed manic is a human cancer that must be eliminated. And then the film goes as far as to ask whether doing so would be the right course of action.
The movie playing at the drive-in at the beginning is Midnight Meat Train, itself no slouch in the violence department. But projecting that in the background while Harrelson rampages in the foreground is director Cooper suggesting, 'You think that movie is realistic and rough? No. THIS is realistic and rough!' Indeed, we're supposed to go along with the notion that since this is a gritty urban drama set monochromatically in a place of true economic woes ("I hear they're gonna shut down the mill...") that this would-be 'prestige picture' is somehow not another piece of revenge cinema. And while there is a certain authenticity to how rough the story gets, it does in a way become about the body-count, and the poster's still got a gun on it. All that to say, Out of the Furnace can pack a tough wallop at times, but it's just not the slice of hard reality it's passing itself off as.
Christian Bale manages to make a mark in what is clearly a passion project of sorts for him. It may not top his work in David O. Russell's The Fighter, but it's enough to move us momentarily beyond Batman. As Bale's Russell Baze descends further and further into the unflinching pit of this film, he reveals how it feels to be on his own, with no direction home, like a complete unknown. It may not nab him another Oscar statue, but fans of no holds barred cinema will come away satisfied and hopefully pondering the moral questions that are asked.