There was plenty riding on the sophomore feature from director Scott Cooper as he got legendary Jeff Bridges his long awaited Oscar with his debut Crazy Heart. But he does more than rise to the occasion sporting a stellar main cast. To aid them he presents a rich and convoluted world where grime and dirt are an all too powerful image. There are stark feelings of hopelessness and dread all throughout the movie that resonates within the great acting of Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson. All portraying a role of varying degree of torture and pain, you can’t help but be forced to walk in their uncomfortable shoes. It is often dark and unsatisfying to a wide audience, but I loved the change of pace used. It doesn’t cater to the audience and presents a more realistic approach. While the story is not wholly original, taking bits and pieces from various war movies including Deer Hunter, the performances from this great trio makes it different from the rest.
Christian Bale is one of the top 10 greatest actors working today, often submersing himself into every role he takes. He also has the rare chameleon like ability to transform into any character. It can be somewhat terrifying seeing him play these roles but all the more engaging seeing him get deeper and deeper into each world. It doesn’t stop here as he plays a Pittsburgh steel mill worker Russell Baze. He packs a powerful dramatic performance trying to deal with unexpected horrors coming at him at the worst possible times. His portrayal of a blue collar everyman is down to earth, realistic and at times depressing in light of shocking developments. Here he projects boisterous rage better than anybody but he is most effective when it is simmered and you can see him about to erupt. His quiet anger speaks volumes as you wait if he is finally going to act out. Bale can play any person from any point in time and it couldn’t feel more heartbreaking or real. He plays the tragic, flawed character better than most with impressive work on The Machinist, American Psycho, The Dark Knight Trilogy and The Fighter.
His performance is further helped with the amazing chemistry he had with Casey Affleck as his younger brother Rodney Baze Jr. Affleck is slowly becoming a formidable dramatic force. Overtime he will eventually be as impressive as his big brother Ben. His portrayal as an Iraqi war vet is even more poignant. Yes, the damaged war vet coming home to very little future prospects has been done before and it is very easy to show the distinct negatives of war, but it feels alarmingly real with Casey’s acting. It’s emotionally damaging and powerful as he struggles to find an easy way out, with all other options turning up empty. In one scene in particular, he screams in pain at his brother about the ugly horrors of war. It’s real in this climate and horrible that the soldiers today are experiencing this right now.
Sometimes you forget that there are people dealing with shit that is far worse than you could imagine and they’re doing it for love of their country. In this barren landscape, it doesn’t help that there are people who strive on desperation. That’s where Woody Harrelson as backwoods hillbilly gang leader Harlan DeGroat comes in. Harrelson is terrifying, magnetic, methodic and someone you can’t keep your eyes off of. His performance was absolutely stellar as he shows he is not one to be reckoned with. Woody’s madness and sick lunacy is reminiscent of Mickey Knox from Natural Born Killers mixed in with Tallahassee from Zombieland. One scene that was particularly shocking used a fried food as a phallic symbol which reminded me of a scene from Killer Joe with Matthew McConaughey using fried chicken. Harrelson shows great charisma while relishing as the disgusting bad guy. He is a terrible person that isn’t afraid to let you know that with every icy glare from his dirt covered face. The rest of the cast didn’t really live up to their counterparts. It just seemed like mere filler, not really complimenting the character in any notable way. I like Zoe Saldana but there really wasn’t much there as a girlfriend to Russell Baze. It was more like an accessory to Bales character and didn’t feel like she was all that important. Something you drive past by and notice but don’t recall moments later. The same goes for Forest Whitaker as the police chief who was partially underutilized. It’s too bad because he really is a great actor but just gets mediocre scripts or bad agents. It sucks that some Oscar winners are worse off after winning an academy award. Willem Dafoe was alright as a bar owner in league with some bad guys. He’s a great character actor who can shine in roles big or small but it was nothing too substantial here. The cast isn’t as complete as it should be with so much talent but the greatness of the trio heavily outweighs any qualms with the rest of the cast.
Steve Cooper has a great feeling for the heart, scenery and tone of the movie. In only his second outing, he lays groundwork of quiet desperation and pain amid a land that has no real answers for the characters. He makes you feel you are right there in Braddock, Pennsylvania. You almost smell the pungency of smokestacks, cigarettes, and whiskey. The grime and dirt feels like it could come right off the screen onto you. The little details to make the characters particularly dirty and disgusting in so many ways was exceptional. It feels like they haven’t showered in days, adding a whole new shade to these complicated characters. Cooper did this brilliantly with Crazy Heart using the desert landscape and here using the industrial and lush landscapes of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The lighting is moody and dark, rightfully setting the mood of questionable morals. Russell and Rodney enter that darkness, permeating throughout their soul. The cinematography was also excellent, showcasing what makes Pennsylvania so synonymous and the covered rich landscapes of Jersey where the backwoods villains inhabit.
The story wasn’t something we haven’t seen before but it doesn’t make it any less engaging or heartbreaking. Rodney Jr. is home on leave from Iraq and on dire straits when he gets involved with some very bad men to get out of it. Russell, a steel mill worker, risks all by finding him in the worst possible place. It’s a slow paced emotional drama that doesn’t offer quick excitement like most people would expect or like. It’s not made to be a fast paced action flick nor does it direct to it in any way. You’re meant to watch these characters struggle and try to adapt to ever increasing bad decisions. The performances alone should be enough to grab you, forget about the intangibles. The tone is increasingly somber with no real conclusion, but in reality a more satisfying ending would downplay the mood and take away everything that has taken place before. When a movie is increasingly sad, people expect some sort of ending leaves them fulfilled no matter what. This happens way too often as I hate how directors and executives pander down to the audiences with the pointless test screenings. Anytime a movie goes against the norm, I welcome with open arms.
Out of the Furnace is a dark and gritty drama that doesn’t really offer hope in the end, but that shouldn’t be the one thing to take away and keep someone from enjoying it. It presents a realistic approach in a Pennsylvania town, its inhabitants and the seedy underground that lies all around it. Not all the answers have to be answered by the final reel comes up; something’s are best left to the imagination. One should really appreciate the acting of Bale, Affleck, and Harrelson as they provided equally different but very impressive performances. They meshed together extremely well, providing a great cohesive unit. The direction was good too utilizing the somber tone and offering an unapologetic ending. The imagery was gorgeous and was a main focal point of the film. Its not going to win many fans over, but it shows a world for what it is. Often depressing, it shows that happy endings don’t always come. Unsurprisingly it will go underappreciated, but will offer some unsuspecting wonders if given the chance. If one allows oneself into this world, they will soon not forget it. Three and a half bare knuckle fights out of five.