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There are bad people in the world. Monsters in fact. Some who have no compunction for others, who would as soon as cut a man than give a kind word. Many films have showcased some of the worst in those who live to hurt, painting horrific stories of people in their worst states of mind, those who breath only the most foul of air. With Out of the Furnace, a harrowing and troubling look at ruthless men in desperate times, there are no heroes, no light or hope, only the truth. Terrible, beautiful truth.
THE STORY: Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a hardworking man devoted to his girlfriend Lean (Zoë Saldana), hoping to start a family. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is about to ship off to Iraq, a young man who bets on horses and owes money, to which Russell secretly pays. It’s a hard life, but an honest one for Russell, a proud man who wants only to provide. But life is a bitch. When he drives home one day slightly intoxicated, he hits another car, killing everyone inside, including a child. It ends everything.
He spends time in prison, in the years so, losing his father to illness and Lena to another man. Meanwhile, Rodney returns and is mentally devastated by what he’s seen and done. After Russell is finally released, he tries to get his life back in shape, to atone, returning to work at the mill, hoping to begin again, even as some things are impossible to reset.
Rodney is the larger problem, having been traumatized by the war, he has lost nearly all feeling in life, so numb to the banality of living back home, he has taken to illegal bare-fisted brawling for cash, but has run himself into such debt with local moneyman John Petty (Willem Defoe), he needs a big score and asks … no, demands … he hook him up with a crew in the Jersey backwoods who pay large. That means making a deal with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrleson), a particularly savage kingpin who runs an underground ring of fighters and has Petty already over a barrel.
When he takes Rodney to see DeGroat, they make a deal for Rodney to get in a fight, but some deals are never meant to last. When Rodney doesn’t come home, Russell takes it upon himself to find him, even when the police say that doing so is the wrong thing to do. So if he can’t go to the man, he’ll bring the man to him, and with it a nightmare.
Directed by Scott Cooper, Out Of The Furnace is a taunt, often chilling character study of two driven men who are destined to collide. It didn’t do well in theaters, and audiences didn’t take to the relentlessly gritty feel, but it was a critical favorite for many and earned high praise for its performances and story. I took to it on release and was immediately won over by the impressive tone Cooper sets from the opening salvo, and the unnerving presence of Harrelson throughout, who is terrifying in every scene he’s in. A dark and troubling experience, this a powerfully underrated film.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: As mentioned, there’s a slew of great performances to keep an eye on, with Bale doing his usual brooding turn that has great effect, and as much as he is the center of the story, he is surrounded by some terrific supporting players. Keep an eye on Sam Shepard as Russell’s uncle in a small but impactful part. He’s incredibly good. Watch him as he remains a figure of balance in the chaos unfolding. Forest Whitaker does some of his best work as a local cop trying to keep Russell on the right side of the law, even as he understands that the law has no hold in the world Russell heads into.
Perhaps most impressive is Cooper’s flare for setting though. While the actors are all compelling, it’s the environments they live in that really give Out Of The Furnace its authenticity. Every room, every building, every road, field, house, and office are soaked with sumptuous detail. It’s impossible not to search every frame for the small bits that bring it to life. From a rundown house in a lonely field to a rusted out mill pumping rivers of steam into the crisp blue skies, this is a great-looking film. And while you’re watching, maybe stop and listen for a bit as well, with a some subtle sound design and a nuanced score Dickon Hinchliffe. Good stuff.
A GREAT MOMENT: There are a number of moments that deserve a closer look, especially the aforementioned opening sequence, which is both riveting and powerfully frightening, but it is a quiet moment between Russell and Lena that is most affecting. While the film is about men and their anger, this small moment with a woman is staggering in what it says about the true depths of Russell and how solid a good man he really is.
After he has come home after time in prison, he tries to reconnect with Lena, looking to prove himself worthy in her eyes. They meet on a walking bridge and he attempts to tell her his intentions, that he wants her back and that he is a better man than he was. While the mill is closing, he doesn’t care, he misses her so greatly, he needs her back. And there is a look in her eye that hints she wishes it so, but things are not the same and she confesses something that she suspects will utterly wreck him. Indeed it does, but his response is not bitter but instead … remarkable.
And then we get Lena’s reaction to this, and its a crushing moment of realization for her, an acknowledgment of what has perhaps lingered in her heart for years in his absence. It’s a brilliant piece of acting from Saldana, who gives Lena herself an emotional depth that is unexpected. These are clearly two people with great pain between them, ruined by a tragedy that seem beyond repair, and this conversation in most any other film would be one of conflict but instead, here, is one of unconditional love. It’s really good.
THE TALLY: Out Of The Furnace doesn’t follow a formula nor expectations. Its conflicts feel genuine and their solutions never easy. Violent and packed with tension, it doesn’t play into either with contrived style, rather keeping it low-key and centered on the consequences. A deadly serious film, it’s not looking to inspire but instead awaken, crafting a tragic story of a good man in bad times. It closes on a single shot after a magnificent fade to black that invites questions about when and what we are seeing and should color your perceptions of at least two people.