Title: Out Of The Furnace
Director: Scott Cooper
Major Players: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson
Out Of Five? Four
It’s a drive-in movie. A car door opens and its male occupant throws up. He then attacks the woman with him and the man in the next car who comes to help her is beaten up for his efforts. The woman is thrown out of the car and her attacker roars off into the night. Woody Harrelson, Hollywood’s ultimate go-to psycho, has arrived – and the audience is left wondering when he’ll be back on the screen and how he’ll fit into the story. It’s not long until his next, albeit fleeting, appearance where he just mumbles a few words – and it soon becomes clear why he’s there.
In Scott Cooper’s Out Of The Furnace, brothers Russell and Rodney Baze live in steel town Braddock. At the start of the story in 2008, Russell is the reliable hard worker, Rodney the feckless gambler. When a tragic accident sends Russell to prison, Rodney returns to the army and serves in Iraq. Several years later, when Russell is released, Rodney is back home and involved in bare knuckle fighting to make money. He takes on a fight organised by drug baron Harrelson in the Appalachian mountains, and when he disappears, Russell comes looking for him.
Let’s get the big question out of the way first. Is Out Of The Furnace a re-run of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter? There are certainly parallels. We move from the Vietnam War to Iraq. It’s not Russian roulette, but bare knuckle fighting. Where there were three friends, now there’s two brothers. The steel town is still there. And there’s even a deer hunting scene, which is the closest the film comes to a cliché: Russell (Christian Bale) finds himself eyeballing a beautiful stag and raises his rifle to fire. He can’t do it – but we know immediately that he won’t flinch the next time.
Those similarities make it more of a partner piece than a re-working of The Deer Hunter, almost a pair of bookends sandwiching America’s least successful foreign ventures. And they shouldn’t overshadow what is, at its heart, a grim yet gripping social thriller with a cast that instantly marks it out as a cut above the rest.
Of course, we all know it takes more than a top-drawer cast to make a good film – sorry, The Counsellor! – but Cooper has assembled a group of alpha males who all deliver. There’s so much testosterone around that the women hardly get a look-in. Christian Bale bring his customary intensity to the role of the older brother, complete with barely pent up emotion, while Casey Affleck is suitably edgy and despairing as the younger Rodney. They’re strongly supported by Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepherd. But the acting plaudits go to Harrelson as the drugs baron who dominates the film, even when we just glimpse him lurking in a corner. It’s the showy part and comes with the few flashy scenes in the film – in one, he injects his latest concoction into his big toe and the other sees him lighting a cigarette with a blowtorch.
Compared to his first film, Crazy Heart, this is a striking change of tone from Cooper. Where we previously saw a drink-sodden Jeff Bridges redeemed by the love of a good woman, and stay that way despite losing her, this time round both the woman and the redemption are lost. The mood of the film is dour and gloomy, with little hope for the steel town that’s been ravaged by the recession, on a smaller scale for Russell and Rodney and, implicitly, on a bigger scale for the States and the American dream. Flags may fly outside people’s houses, but in terms of practical support and jobs for the ex-serviceman carrying the physical and emotional wounds of modern warfare, there is nothing.
As the opening scenes show us one main protagonist, the closing shot of Out Of The Furnace shows us the other. Christian Bale’s Russell, out of prison again, sat in the gloom of his house. The outlook is no better.
Out Of The Furnace is released nationwide on Wednesday, 29 January 2014.