Out of the Furnace – 2013
Director Scott Cooper
Starring Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard
Screenplay Brad Ingelsby and Cooper
“He might be safer over in Iraq”
It’s hard to recall the last movie that featured common folk in Steel Mill country of Pennsylvania that started out with anything close to a sunny day. Indeed, the brightest light one sees is the torches the workers work with among the grit and grime. Everyone is downtrodden, someone in the family is on death’s door and the younger, brighter future of the family is approaching an eclipse. It’s always up to the stoic older brother to make the sacrifices.
Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace goes one better. This time, the older brother, Russell (Bale) causes in a drunk driving wreck – after drinking with the loan shark (DaFoe) who his brother Rodney, Jr. (Affleck) owed money to – and ends up in prison. When he gets out, he returns to the mill, but finds that his girlfriend (Saldana) has moved in with the North Braddock sheriff (Whitaker). He accepts this stoically, like everything else in his life.
So while he’s staying busy repairing the old grimy house left to him and his brother by his now dead father, Rodney, Jr. – a serviceman returned from Iraq before Russell went to prison – has back in debt to DaFoe’s Petty. He’s trying to pay off the debt by fighting, but given that he can’t take a fall, he isn’t making much money at it. Petty tells Jr. to work in the mill, like his brother and father. Of course that proposition is not so enticing. Russell goes back and lifelessly goes through the motions. After seeing evidence of Jr.’s past time, they have a talk, which goes nowhere.
“The f#%in’ mill killed our Dad.”
The military has killed Jr. from the inside, so he is going to finish the job by taking a fight in “Ramapo,” which Petty is trying to protect him from. The folks in Ramapo, represented by Harrellson’s brutally sleazy DeGroat, are the bad mamba jamba, and of course things don’t go well. Which leads us back to poor, downtrodden Russell to do something about it.
The biggest problem with Out of the Furnace is, to paraphrase the great Griffin Mill, the script writes itself. The circumstances and the plot give Bale nowhere to go, even though he still can evoke strong feelings, like when he discovers that his lost love is going to have a baby with her new beau. His lone vice takes place when he is doing good, and in every other moment of the film he is…doing good. The stoicism leaves us nothing to wonder about his decisions. The script takes care of that. Anything that happens to him is a direct correlation to some other decision made by his brother. He speaks to him once about it, but then accepts that his efforts will be fruitless.
As DeGroat, Harrelson is pure venom. It’s hard to imagine anyone “jumping in the ring” with him, but it’s just as unlikely any of his cronies would even play cards with him. He does not accept losing, smirking or questions. When he asks Jr. to take a dive, it can only go one way. Guys like DeGroat exist in the movie mountains of Bumblef#%k, U.S.A. and nowhere else.
Cooper’s Crazy Heart was a combination of a great soundtrack and an incredible actor at the top of his form. The script wasn’t half bad, but it seems more like a stroke of luck that it was better than this one. His gritty sepia tone visual style worked better in a part of the country where the sun hit the screen once in a while. Here it’s annoyingly dark, just like the labored subject.
There is a stellar cast for this film. The producer’s list is a who’s who of Hollywood power. Everyone is clamboring to be a part of the one who could be the next great director. This film could put a curb to that. I am sure he will get a few more shots, but there will be a few less big names and not as much money. Meanwhile, Jeff Nichols cranks out classic after classic, for less money combined than this film cost to make.
(** out of *****)