Though the premise to Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace is somewhat unoriginal, with a conventional revenge plot that’s grown tired in contemporary cinema, the filmmaker’s sophomore feature – after the double Academy Award winning Crazy Heart – manages to illuminate this concept, as the themes presented are done so with such ingenuity and allure. Cooper surprises you, and takes you places you aren’t expecting to go – and when you throw in an array of spellbindingly impressive performances, you’re onto a winner.
Before our protagonists enter the fray, we are introduced to the violently unpredictable and deranged Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), who causes something of a stir at a drive-in cinema. Moments later we meet Russell Baze (Christian Bale) – a hardworking, diligent man who strives for a better life alongside his partner, Lena (Zoe Saldana). However a cruel twist of fate lands Russell in jail on drink driving charges, and while he’s in confinement, his erratic, anarchic younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) falls into the wrong crowd, desperately hoping to make some quick cash through bare-knuckle boxing. When Russell is released from prison, he has to decide whether to try and turn his own life back around, or get started on his brother’s, and this is where notorious drug dealer Harlan DeGroat enters back into proceedings…
Out of the Furnace is incredibly naturalistic, never over elaborating real life for the mere sake of it. When Rodney owes money to Willem Dafoe’s John Petty, it’s not a million dollars, it’s 15 hundred. A relatable sum, and one that allows for the audience to comprehend the scenario, and put themselves in the character’s shoes. When Russell drinks before the accident which lands him a prison sentence, it’s not a theatrical bender, drinking himself into oblivion – he just had one whiskey too many, a whiskey he didn’t even want in the first place. The brotherly relationship and dynamic between the Baze’s is so wonderfully judged and provides this relatively cold film with so much heart. Though that being said, Cooper has ignited that dark, grainy feel that has been used so effectively these past couple of years, in films such as The Place Beyond the Pines, Mud and Killer Joe. The cinematography is astounding in parts too, particularly in one memorable scene between Bale and Saldana, taking place on a bridge, while conversely there are a handful of scenes so intense you can barely watch them, as the brooding visual experience conflicts against the intensity of the narrative to great effect.
You become so emotionally invested in these characters too, even Rodney, who is a complete liability, and yet you still want nothing but the best for him. It’s a real credit to the actors that this be the case, as even with Russell, he’s inherently flawed and capable of making huge mistakes (such as drink driving), but Bale ensures we’re able to find it ourselves to forgive him. He’s a kind-hearted man and we can find the good in him – which is imperative for later on, as it’s this empathy for the role which charges the revenge plot that ensues. The same certainly can’t said of Harrelson’s DeGroat, a vicious and nasty creation. Introducing him at the very beginning is a wise move, as we know fully well this won’t be the last we see of him, and the patient wait for his reintroduction creates so much suspense and adds a real foreboding element to proceedings, setting the precedence for the rest of this movie. The opening scene also sets up a film that really delves into deep rooted aspects of modern American culture, as a drive-in cinema is a setting that has been woven and ingrained in to the fabric of popular, cinematic, culture, and one that, symbolically, is fading away somewhat.
Bale is absolutely breathtaking as our lead, and similarly to Daniel Day-Lewis, it has reached a point now where you know that as soon as you see his name attached to a project, it’s going to be worthwhile, as he’s become a safe stamp of quality – and yet he still manages to surpass your expectations. There is such a vulnerability to this role and yet you never doubt he’s in control of the situation. In one scene he manages to portray utter elation and absolute devastation in one single facial expression. He’s fortunate enough to share the screen with a superb Affleck, and a harrowing Harrelson, who makes up such a fearful antagonist. Even the lesser supporting roles – played by the likes of Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard – are stunning.
In parts Out of the Furnace is somewhat unsubtle and overly cinematic. The feature may be engaging and enticing throughout, however every now and again we are taken out of the story when a generic cinematic trope is implemented, such as the irrelevant use of home footage to depict distant childhood memories. The film simply doesn’t need this conventionality – but, to be completely honest, it’s something of a small gripe in the grand scheme of things.