|Review by Caitlyn Thompson|
Out of the Furnace is about so many things – it features the struggles of blue collar life, familial loyalty, the burden of being an Iraq-war veteran, post-prison consequences, gambling, love.
Scott Cooper delivers intense material in a rustic Pennsylvania town where decency is rare and there isn’t much hope for improvement in life.
It’s gritty and brutal.
There is a brilliant contrast Cooper captures between the beautiful and brutal in Out of the Furnace.
The gorgeous angles and low sunlight make the rough steel mill look like an enormous art installation and the softness of those swarming takes is countered by brutal and gratuitous violence. Cooper shoots a series of unfortunate set of events beautifully, making the impoverished setting mythic and far away.
Set in the time of Obama’s election and at the height of the recession, work options in the small town extend to a soon-to-be-shut-down steel mill, petty criminality, or the military. The film illustrates life where institutions are crumbling. Between the systematic outsourcing of American industry and the crushing recession, the environment feels without a future. Every man lives for himself, compromising morals and ethics for the sake of simply getting by.
The movie succeeds primarily as a character study. A powerhouse cast depicts characters rich with emotion and turmoil. Though the plot can get convoluted and crowded, it was filmed so beautifully, and the characters’ chemistry is so palpable. Each character in this movie has been damaged.
Christian Bale, as ever, is phenomenal, as Russell Baze, the eldest of two brothers, trying to live as honestly as possible as a third generation steel laborer. Personifying tragedy in his slow and towering posture, he manages to look very intimidating, weathered and dangerous, but capable. And with a breathy kindness in his voice he delivers a tender sadness that’s just astounding.
Zoe Saldana and Forrest Whitaker –their roles are minor but memorable. Their characters cling to hope and reason amidst the impulsive violence that surrounds them.
On the bloody side, we have Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, and Casey Affleck.
Harrelson is unrecognizable as the crazed criminal, Harlan DeGroat. Terrifying and marbled-mouthed to the point of incomprehensibility, he’s so menacing that you feel like he’ll reach through the screen and assault you in your seat (it doesn’t help that in the opening scene he beats a fellow drive-in member unconscious).
Dafoe is vile and creepy. He uses his expressive features to cue the audience—his eyes and unsteady grin let us know when to be wary.
Affleck is superb portraying a haunted war-veteran, whose insatiable fury ignites a series of unfortunate events. His soft voice is similar to Bale’s, but his anger is crippling – he transforms in the violent scenes, which is amazing to watch, because Affleck is so small and sweet looking. A young man poisoned by war.
Scott Cooper gets an A+ for guiding his actors through intense moments. But that’s all they are, moments.
While there are too many great characters and too many great storylines that never really expand, I think the point of Out of the Furnace is to illustrate the decay of industrial America.
Blue-collar decency supported by hard labor and fair wages doesn’t amount to a wonderful life in the “heartland”. Morality and hard work ethic devolve into violence and petty criminality. Hope dwindles. Building a middle class life seems hopeless and living by the rules looks foolish. Endless work in a place where there is no greater good, just paying off the next debt, trying to get through each day for the sake of simply getting by.