Almost everything I’ve read since seeing the new film Out of the Furnace makes comparisons to The Deer Hunter, which is legitimate. The film takes place in the hardscrabble world of a Pennsylvania steel mill town; the younger brother of the lead character is sent to Iraq, although we’re spared any footage of that deployment; it’s incredibly violent; and yes, there is a scene of deer hunting.
Christian Bale is Russell, the son who works hard to help support his father who is dying of cancer. He tries to live a good life and do the right things, but a momentary weakness sends him to prison, destroying all he’s worked and hoped for. His younger brother Rodney, brilliantly played by Casey Affleck, is a gambler, and part-time illegal bare-knuckle fighter for the shady Willem Dafoe. And the always-terrific Woody Harrelson channels pure evil as the drug lord and illegal fight promoter in a remote section of the New Jersey hills. It’s another of those “creep of the century” performances that Harrelson is so good at, but unlike his lead role in Natural Born Killers, his character reminds me more of the villainous Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West. These four performances are as good as any you’re likely to see on the screen anytime soon.
But Out of the Furnace is far from perfect. It seems to take at least forty-five minutes before it hits its stride in telling a coherent story, and the ambiguous final scene raises more questions instead of providing answers.
The rest of the cast has comparatively little to do, but it’s always a pleasure to be in the company of the likes of Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, and actor-playwright Sam Shepard, who seems to be working a lot in film these days.
We know the film is semi-contemporary, as there’s a flash of a television speech of Ted Kennedy encouraging viewers to vote for President Obama in his first run for office. However, the town, the cars, the people, all seem like they’re stuck in the 1970s, as if to say once the mills closed and the towns decayed, the people had no where else to go. That’s a scenario that’s played out a lot in Rust Belt towns in the Northeast and Midwest.
Capably directed and co-written by Scott Cooper, who hit a home run a couple of years ago with the Jeff Bridges film Crazy Heart, Cooper once again gets stellar performances from his actors. Bale is stalwart, but has his emotional moments, particularly in one very moving scene where he encounters former girlfriend Zoe Saldana. Affleck proves, with every role, that he is one of the best young actors working today.
Although Out of the Furnace is not a film for date night or to relax with over the holidays, it is a film you should see if you appreciate outstanding acting and, for the most part, expert film making. I was not expecting to like it very much, but despite the downbeat tone of the film, and the aforementioned structural problems, I was completely won over by watching these excellent performers ply their trade.
The R-rated Out of the Furnace is currently on view at most movie mills around town.