Out of the Furnace
by Hope Madden
Just in time for the holidays, a bleak look at desperation, blood ties, masculinity and loyalty. Welcome to Braddock, PA and Out of the Furnace.
Part Deer Hunter, part Winter’s Bone, Scott Cooper’s new film casts a haunted image of ugliness scarring natural beauty, whether it’s the steel town petering out and leaving a rusted carcass in a Pennsylvania valley, or the human nastiness up in the hills on the Jersey border.
The tale follows a pair of beleaguered brothers in America’s disappearing rust belt. It’s a deceptively simple story of being your brother’s keeper, but Cooper’s meandering storyline keeps you guessing, often entranced. Nothing is as simple as it seems, although there is an inevitability to everything that makes it feel strangely familiar.
Cooper’s camera evokes a palpable sense of place, and his script positions the film firmly and believably – but without a heavy hand – in a clear time period. The setting itself is so true and absorbing that many of the film’s flaws can almost be forgiven.
At the core of Furnace’s many successes are some powerful performances. Both Christian Bale and the endlessly under-appreciated Casey Affleck, as Russell and Rodney Baze, respectively, dig deep to uncover the anguish and resilience at the heart of the siblings’ relationship and struggles. Bale, in particular, smolders with a tenderness and deep love that is heartbreaking.
On the other hand, Woody Harrelson is just plain scary. As the villain (and excellently named) Harlan DeGroat, Harrelson goes all out, leaves nothing behind. Harlan is a Bad MoFo, no doubt, and Harrelson leaves no scenery unchewed.
Cooper stumbles here and there with his storytelling, though. There is some heavy-handed symbolism, and a letter written from one brother to another that’s almost too clichéd and trite to accept in the otherwise articulate piece of filmmaking.
Just four years ago, in his feature film debut Crazy Heart, Cooper led Jeff Bridges to his first Oscar, and Maggie Gyllenhaal to her first nomination. His sophomore effort is less assured, as if he’s trying too hard. His ability to conjure such a vivid place and time impresses, and both Bale and Affleck are characteristically wonderful, but the director can’t seem to reign in the entire cast, and he borrows too freely from other (excellent) movies.
While the stumbles aren’t crippling, they keep Out of the Furnace from the greatness it otherwise might have reached.