Out of the Furnace is Scott Cooper’s second film after 2009’s Crazy Heart.
Furnace stars Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Forrest Whittaker, and Sam Shepard.
The story is set in North Braddock, Pennsylvania. Russell Baze (Bale) is a steel worker. His younger brother, Rodney (Affleck), is a soldier who keeps rotating back to Iraq for another tour. Baze has an incident which lands him in prison for a short while. While inside, he takes a beating, his father dies, and his girlfriend (Saldana) drifts into the arms of another man.
Home from war for good, Rodney visits Russell in jail, and their loving bond is clear. Once out, Russell breathes his freedom deep, though Rodney, troubled to his soul by the theater of war, is getting into bare knuckle fighting, and intertwining with a merciless criminal (Harrelson).
The film opens with a song by Eddie Vedder, and shots of North Braddock and the steel mill surrounded by the mountains of Pennsylvania Appalachia. The timbre of the film is set immediately, imbuing every scene with a sense of lost love, and strength. Beyond the perfect Vedder musical bookends, the rest of the score, minimal, with brooding cello, from Dickon Hinchliffe, carries the mood. Cinematography by Mosanobu Takayanagi handles the blue collar palette as a setting for a classic, almost Shakespearean tragedy. The script was originally written by Brad Inglseby and rewritten by Cooper; the story moves at the right pace, the characters sound and look like real human beings.
Furnace is produced by Leonardo DiCaprio and Ridley Scott. After a December 4th opening weekend, the $22 million dollar movie has struggled against family-oriented fare like Frozen, and market-share hogs such as American Hustle … which also stars Bale.
Bale is hurting Bale, it would seem. But unlike Hustle, which I just saw the night before (thanks to loving grandparents who took our kids while the wife and I skipped out to the movies two nights in a row!) in Out of the Furnace, this is the Bale we know and love from gems like 3:10 to Yuma. Long hair pushed back, scruffy-bearded, tough; he’s a simple man with a heavy heart.
One of the highlights of Furnace is the relationship between Russell and his girlfriend, Lena. Though his incarceration ended their relationship, there are clearly still feelings there when he visits her. In a scene on a bridge overlooking the dying industrial landscape, the two try to find their way through a very difficult moment, and the acting is nothing short of superb. Throughout the film, their circumstances, their longing, their maturity as people render this heart of the film both authentic and cinematic.
All of the performances are excellent. Sam Shepard’s quiet presence as Russell’s uncle leaves an indelible impression. Even Harrelson, who is hard to take seriously some times, comes across as a legitimate menace; someone truly evil – thanks in part to the dark intimacy brought to crucial moments through Takayanagi’s tight lens.
Cooper is a fine director. Furnace has everything in balance. Classic, without being overwrought by its own sense of archetype; violent, with nothing gratuitous; filled with genuinely likeable characters who make mistakes, deal, and maybe even learn. Some of its scenes can be tough to take for some, particularly for people who deal with real-life tragedy every day.
Yet there is a stillness to Furnace that pervades the film. Never short on momentum, the narrative paces itself quietly, patiently. That stillness is in the center of Russell’s turmoil, and is never more apparent and cutaneous than in the final scenes of the film. Unlike the unmotivated, crazed, capricious Richie the Fed in American Hustle, Russell’s ambition is relatable and motivated. But the film never telegraphs its ending, familiar as though some of its elements may be.
There’s no shame in working for a living, Russell tells his younger brother, Rodney. Rodney explodes: “Work for a living? I gave my life for this country, and what’s it done for me?”
It would be easy to point to bits and pieces of Furnace and call them out as “done before.” The soldier who struggles to readjust to civilian life. The Fight Club atmosphere of the bare-knuckle matches. Any Bruce Springsteen song with smokestacks and Pennsylvania. But these elements are fresh and accessible through the writing and performances and never bog down the story. And, they happen. Nothing in the film is even close to outlandish when it comes to the shocks of everyday reality – as those nurses and social workers and doctors who deal with such tragedies can attest.
Tragedy is part of human existence. This is why gratuity has no place in a film which explores it and why Furnace succeeds – the film, like Russell, is strong, subtle, introspective, does not announce or foretell itself, but gets the job done.
Perhaps the only flaw in the entire outing from Cooper-Bale-DiCaprio-Scott was something beyond their control – the placement of the film in the holiday season. It’s possible that a film which takes place during deer season in Pennsylvania and involves bloody knuckles and loud cars did not find its best audience between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I had put up an argument to see Furnace, but the people I dragged along ended up glad that I did.