Scott Cooper’s sophomore directing effort is truly impressive thematic achievement, even if at times a bit misguided. It’s all at once a story of family, revenge, fate, the current economic state and a dying way of life.
Taking place in Braddock, a dying Pennsylvania town built around the steel mill, the story follows Russell Baze(Christian Bale), a steel worker whose younger brother Rodney(Casey Affleck), back home from a 4th tour of Iraq, goes missing after an underground fight to backwoods criminal leader Harlan DeGroat(Woody Harrelson). When the law fails to act, Russell takes matters into his own hands.
Christian Bale is the type of actor the word “chameleonic” was created for. Very few actors working right now have the ability he does to sink as deep as he does into every role. Russell serves as one of his subtlest performances, as he lets his expressions do the talking for his character, while making his hardened American accent come naturally. Casey Affleck continues to prove he is perhaps one the best working American actors, providing such honesty in his portrayal of a soldier suffering from PTSD. The chemistry between him and Bale is terrific, bringing the audience into believing their brotherhood. The character of Harlan DeGroat seemed to be written so cartoonish, and likely would have ended up that way had Woody Harrelson not spent every second of screen time convincing you otherwise. His performance is truly terrifying, and as proven by the chaotic and violent opening scene introduction to him, you know whenever his character comes on screen that you have no idea what he will do. But you assume it will be something truly vile.
The rest of cast gives top-notch performances as well, and should be considered as one of the best ensembles seen this year. Despite limited amounts of screen time, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Willem Dafoe all make their scenes count, delivering truly believable performances and remain on par with the leads in the film. One scene in particular with Saldana and Bale on a bridge is truly heartbreaking, and serves as one of the best acted scenes I believe this year. Sam Shepard also participates in a supporting role of Russell and Rodney’s Uncle Red. Some critics have felt he’s been underused lately, but the thing with Shepard is that screen time is of no consequence to his performances because screen presence is something he has an abundance of. So while he doesn’t have as much to do in this picture, he still is absolutely commanding in each scene he has.
Cooper directs the film with the same true-life believability aesthetics as his first film, “Crazy Heart”. This time though, he paints on a larger canvas. He and cinematographer Masanobu Takanayagi do a great job of capturing the dying nature of the town of Braddock. Late in the film, Russell walks through an empty steel mill, framed up like an empty graveyard. Rodney’s underground fighting scenes are portrayed so realistically that I swore I could smell the sweat, blood and dirt right off the screen. Adding to this effect, the sound editing for the fights was strikingly realistic, never sounding like an action movie, but rather like the audience was right in the fights with Rodney.
The first half or so of the film burns very slowly, but when the revenge plotline kicks in, it provides great clarity to the subtle formative events in the first half that have shaped the characters to where they are now. The slow burn pays off if you are paying attention to the glimpses Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby show of what motivates these characters.
After seeing this film, many film critics seem to knee-jerkingly compare “Out Of The Furnace” to Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter”, an understandable comparison, but then they seem to just leave it at that. This film seems to have just become one big opportunity for critics to show how much they know about “The Deer Hunter”, and subsequently fault “Out Of The Furnace” for essentially not being the same film. The same thing happened earlier this year when the terrific “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” was merely looked at as an imitation of Terrence Malick’s “Badlands”. Neither film this year deserves that sentence. As film critics, shouldn’t we be providing greater insight than any comparison a freshman film student could make? Not just faulting a film for how much it is or is not a previous film?