Saturday, December 7, 2013

Jumping into Out of the Furnace

     Out of the Furnace is much like last year's great Killing Them Softly: both ultra-violent tales consist of gritty characters dealing with the undercurrent of less-than-favorable economic conditions, and both films have wonderful acting, making sure the viewer never looks away from the screen, even in the most brutal of scenes (And Out of the Furnace, in particular, has plenty of blood-soaked bodies to mention). But Out of the Furnace feels even more realistic--taking place in a rusty ol' mill town, Braddock, PA, you can almost feel the soot and grime entering your lungs through the theater screen. It helps having this set of actors, too:  Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, and Zoe Saldana are all completely electric, and Woody Harrelson's backwoods psychopath is one of the most frightening performances of the year. It all adds up to a really good movie, a thriller that is constant with human suffering and despair yet still full of excitement.
     What Out of the Furnace is ultimately about is a bond that a family shares--particularly brothers--and their relationship to their hometown. Russell (Christian Bale) is a mill worker with a beautiful girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) who is just trying to make ends meet. Though he clearly doesn't have the money, Russell tries to pay off Rodney's (Casey Affleck, portraying his younger brother) debt with a local bookie snake, John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Not long after, Russell begins an extended stay at a prison for an unfortunate event, and it changes the family's life forever.
     Everything is different for Russell when--years later--he's released from prison. Rodney, who served numerous tours with the military overseas and is a loose cannon because of it, has gotten involved with a bare-knuckle boxing crime ring. Russell realizes how far Rodney has gone into the deep shit pile too late: once he gets mixed up with backwoods "inbreed" Harlan DeGroat (a sadistic Woody Harrelson), it sets into motion a chain of unfortunate events that leads Russell and his aging uncle on a crusade into Appalachia, full of run-down meth labs, tattooed freaks, and drugged-out, violent men.
     Out of the Furnace is a dark movie: and not just because of the dim and gritty sets and scenes that director Scott Cooper (his second film after Crazy Heart) puts onto the screen. The subject matter is depressing and violent, and around every bend is a shocking scene that tries to pull you down into its despair. But--luckily--the cast's skill of electrifying every minute of the run time never allows to the film to go into full pity party mode. Bale, as always, shows an incredible apptitude to transform into intense characters. In Out of the Furnace, he's the lone source of hope for the viewer--it's his journey that keeps our heads above water. Casey Affleck is great too, and it's clear that with his past films (Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) and now this, Affleck is more of an actor than his older brother. And Zoe Saldana is heartbreaking in her limited screen time--you really feel for her tough situation. But Woody Harrelson is the true standout in Out of the Furnace. Why doesn't this guy act more? Stealing every scene that he's in (and showing up with an explosion in the first scene of the film), his Harland might exemplify some cliches about back country Appalachia criminals. But it doesn't matter: he's damn exciting.
     None of the characters in Out of the Furnace have it figured out: they're all trying to get by, either by clocking in at the mill or participating in criminal activity. Their stories of vengeance, of retribution, of redemption all criss/cross into a cat and mouse finale filmed with the morning sun just coming up over the horizon. It's one of the few beautiful scenes in the film, and--like the previous 100 minutes--it ends in an act of violence. The film is not perfect: its melodramatic but still charming because of the skill of its actors. And a few coincidences are a tiny bit eye-rolling, specifically a pocket-dial on a cellphone. But these instances don't take away from Out of the Furnace, a dark and well-acted Mill Town saga.     (B+)

No comments:

Post a Comment