Scott Cooper follows up his critically acclaimed film Crazy Heart with Out of the Furnace, a film that’s bleak and unrelenting, yet stirring and filled with knockout performances by Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck. Out of the Furnace isn’t your typical Hollywood drama, playing out in a much different fashion, focusing on decisions through an anticlimactic eye that’s soaked in realism and backed up by writing that flows with an extra level of authenticity. Out of the Furnace is a powerful film that Cooper handles with bold hands.
Russell (Christian Bale) is a hardworking man. He puts in more than enough hours at the local mill, but that still doesn’t help him make ends meet with his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a soldier trying to find his way through life after serving four tours in Iraq. Both men live in a small town that’s very poor, located in the Rust Belt of America.
Rodney gets mixed up in an underground fighting ring to try and pay off his debts to John Petty (Willem Dafoe). This brings him to Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a sleazy and smelly inbred of a man that only cares about two things in life: drugs and money. Harlan sees potential in Rodney as a fighter and decides to use him in order for Petty to pay off a massive debt that he owes. This will also free up Rodney’s debts with Petty.
Things go sour and now Russell must take justice in his own hands to find his brother after local police claim that the cold and unforgiving hills that Harlan resides in are off limits to cops.
Out of the Furnace is a cold movie. Director Scott Cooper makes sure of that through his writing and directing, which plays out much differently than a typical Hollywood drama. Here, the film focuses on grounded realism. There are no big action shoot outs or moments in the film where characters do things that you or I couldn’t think of and execute. This is a film that spends most of its time grabbing a hold of its characters and defining them.
Cooper’s last film, Crazy Heart, was a personal story about a struggling alcoholic country singer trying to find his footing again and now with Out of the Furnace he expands his scope and focuses on three key characters.
Russell is the earnest and hardworking man just trying to support his family in any way that he can. He’s all about sweating for a living and doing things the fair way and that comes to a crossing point once his brother goes missing and the men that are supposed to be protecting him decide to do nothing about it. He’s also a man facing lots of change, both internally and externally. He’s done things and made some mistakes that have forced his hand and now he must decide which direction his life needs to go in.
Christian Bale handles this quiet rage with another performance that will likely earn him an Oscar nomination. Bale makes Russell very human, focusing on his soft and gentle side, while also revealing his aggression as the film escalates and takes its many turns down a road that leads to darkness and hate. Most of Bale’s highlight moments from the film don’t even rely on many words and instead focus on his physicality. He expresses himself very well through basic movements and motions. Bale is one of those rare actors that really dives into his roles and fully delivers a performance that’s head-to-toe realized and executed.
Casey Affleck‘s Rodney presents a counter to Russell. Rodney is a soldier that’s sick of what his country hasn’t been able to do for him, yet he’s still a loving brother and a man that’s just trying to find his way in a world that’s much crueler than he expected. Affleck gives Rodney plenty of force, yet still hints at the good sides of the character and the sides that were their far before his tours in Iraq. It’s important to note that Cooper could have written Rodney off as a simple plot point, but instead gives him just as much importance and focus as Russell.
Watching Bale and Affleck work together is amazing, because the two show that bond of brotherhood and family with a sincerity that only comes from some of the best actors working today. Rodney and Russell may not see eye to eye, but they’re always there for each other.
Woody Harrelson‘s Harlan DeGroat just might be one of the sickest and most unlikable characters to grace the screen in some time. There is absolutely nothing to like about DeGroat, a degrading druggie that finds something to hate in just about any person that he comes into contact with. Harrelson’s approach to the heartless character is perhaps one of his finest. He brings a real gritty and nasty take to the character that’s unsettling and raw and exactly the kind of person that you’d wish to never encounter.
And all of this is maintained by Scott Cooper‘s direction, which moves quietly and slowly, but latches onto each and every single emotion in a powerful way. This is a heavy film that might strike some more than others. The way it handles most of the story feels refreshing. Almost every outcome that you’d normally expect from a film like this gets flipped over and this creates a film that’s almost depressingly too real, yet unique and made stronger by its bold decisions and lack of glorification.
Out of the Furnace is a small movie that could have been made to feel so much bigger, but that would rob it of its authentic approach to a world that’s filled with hopelessness. Cooper’s direction never loses its intention though and the film benefits from his ability to deal with such material on a level that feels raw and real, yet not like a complete downer.
Many will complain about Out of the Furnace‘s ending and the film’s general bleak tone, but that’s what I found so refreshing. Scott Cooper paints an unflinching masterpiece, not once giving into typical genre stereotypes or writing tropes. Out of the Furnace is a film with some major balls and I respect it so very much for taking some pride in its minimal, yet effective approach. It’s a film that sounds simple, but proves to be so much more, through Cooper’s direction and his A-list of performers that deliver some mighty fine work.
Out of the Furnace – 8.5/10