I see the world / Feel the chill . . .
With both the holidays and the cold weather upon us, now is a great time to go to the movies, but director Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace may not be the film to see on a family outing. A bleak, gritty look at life in rural Pennsylvania and New Jersey, the picture blends elements of Winter’s Bone and The Fighter, with dashes of The Deer Hunter and Fight Club tossed in for good measure. Although the film boasts some terrific performances, it feels recycled at best, and derivative at worst.
The film concerns hard-working Russell Baze (Christian Bale), who toils away at the local steel mill, like his father and uncle before him. Russell’s brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) escaped mill work by enlisting in the Army, serving four tours in Iraq, and coming home shell-shocked, to say the least. Rodney can’t fathom work so prosaic as a mill job – not that the mill will be around much longer, as its closure, of course, is imminent – and so falls in with some unsavory characters who set up rigged bare knuckle fights, an arena that allows Rodney to both show off his skills and work off his aggression. When Rodney goes missing, Russell, whose own life has not exactly been a cakewalk, takes it upon himself to find Rodney, and the story that unfolds comprises the picture.
The film seems to want to say something Big And Important about the decline of decent paying blue collar jobs in the Northeast, the accompanying rise of drugs and organized crime in these economically challenged rural areas, and the way this country treats its returning veterans. These already weighty topics are muddied even further, however, by an overarching thematic examination of nothing short of the nature of vengeance, retribution, evil, and forgiveness. Such an exploration is a tall order for even the most adept filmmaker, and Scott Cooper, whose previous effort was the much more straightforward and effective Crazy Heart, seems to have bit off more than he can chew here. While Cooper elicits powerful and compelling performances from his all-star cast, the film ultimately feels like a case of style over substance, touching on each of these key themes only briefly and superficially. As an example, Cooper decides to contrast a scene of Russell and his Uncle Red (Sam Shepard) hunting a deer with a scene of Rodney preparing for an underground fight, and the imagery is so overwhelmingly obvious and heavy-handed that the scenes lose their intended effect, and instead just feel laughable.
What this picture has going for it, though, is its A-list cast; if you are a student of great acting, this film certainly provides a stellar showcase. Woody Harrelson proves he is one of the best character actors working today with his riveting, menacing portrayal of Harlan DeGroat, a man for whom absolutely nothing matters except cash and the next high, making him both fearless and exceedingly dangerous. Christian Bale embodies the complex inner struggle of a man who wants to do right by society and his family, but who is thwarted by circumstances and mistakes. The way Bale captures Russell’s conflicted state of mind is masterful. And credit should be given to Cooper for reigning in Willem Dafoe’s instinct to sometimes chew the scenery too much; he’s more subdued here, hitting all the right notes as a small town bookie way out of his league. Casey Affleck, too, holds his own with Bale, capturing well the PTSD of a veteran who doesn’t even know he has PTSD, but who feels lost, angry, and afraid, and doesn’t know how to get out from under those feelings.
As for the smaller roles, Zoe Saldana seems slightly miscast as a rural elementary school teacher; just because she’s decked out in jeans and a flannel shirt does not make us buy her as someone satisfied with life in small-town rural Pennsylvania. Saldana carries with her an innate air of elegance and sophistication, and that distracts from her role here. Sam Shepard as Russell and Rodney’s uncle, and Forest Whitaker as a policeman, fare a bit better, as Shepard seems to be the go-to guy whenever a film needs an older actor who can exude seen-it-all world-weariness and gravitas just by standing there. Whitaker brings both a resigned acceptance and a compassionate intelligence to his role as a police officer who knows his limitations, but still wants to do the right thing.
Cooper has assembled such an outstanding cast that it’s a shame he can’t provide them with a better forum for their talents. He gets credit for trying to deliver a thought-provoking, philosophical picture, but, unfortunately, his focus is too broad, and he ends up saying very little original about too many different heavy issues. He bookends the film with Pearl Jam’s classic “Release,” which says something right there; you know you’re in trouble when you have to rely on song lyrics to hammer home the point of your picture: “I’ll hold the pain/ Release me,” indeed.
Out of the Furnace opens in Bay Area theaters today.