December 18, 2014
Brothers torn apart in strong revenge drama
For the Herald
Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace is an actors’ movie that promises and delivers
After having made the sweetly melancholic and understated Crazy Heart (2009), the story of an alcoholic country music artist whose professional and sentimental life is anything but fulfilling, American filmmaker Scott Cooper’s next film was set to be highly anticipated. And while the recently released Out of the Furnace, a strong revenge drama involving brothers and fighters, is no masterpiece, it still ranks among the best mainstream releases so far this year.
Cooper’s new outing is the type of film that meets most of the expectations it arises, has more than a few outstanding scenes, and misses on some opportunities that could have made it more gripping.
Out of the Furnace spins the tale of two brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck) who care deeply for one another, even if they have taken quite different paths in life. Surely the fact that life has been unrewarding for both makes them more aware of the importance and necessity of keeping their bond alive, and be there for one another, come what may.
Think that Russell does exactly what his family has been doing for ages: he works at a steel mill that offers no future whatsoever, makes very little money, and actually wears him down little by little. He’s got a girlfriend, the beautiful Lena (Zoe Saldana), a school teacher with a tender heart who wants him to work less so they can share more time together (he often works double-shifts). He also has a dying father (Charles David Richards) whom he has to take care of on a daily basis. And there are the everyday problems too.
As for Rodney, he’s a soldier back from Iraq, where he had most traumatic experiences and gained nothing at all. On the contrary. He resents having fought there and hates the idea of spending the rest of his life at a steel mill in a poor, two-bit town. And he’s got debts left and right. So first he thinks gambling is the way to pay them, but when that fails, he goes for bare-knuckle fighting.
This is when the town’s shark, John Petty (Willem Dafoe) and Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), an irascible, violent drug dealer, enters the scene. Of course, none of the plans Rodney makes to pay his debts actually works out. Instead, expect vicious fights, a couple of cruel killings, and a bloody brotherly revenge.
Just like Crazy Heart was driven by a stellar performance by Jeff Bridges, Out of the Furnace is also an actors’ movie. Christian Bale turns brilliantly turns Russell into an afflicted, yet energetic character with many shades, someone you can relate to in how he worries about his brother. And in how much he strives to avoid the unavoidable. Casey Affleck’s plays a less complex individual, but he still makes you care, feel sorry, and be angry for Rodney, all at the same time. Together with Bale, they carry the heart of the movie and do wonders.
But Willem Dafoe and Woody Harrelson simply resort to formulaic (and effective) acting, whereas Zoe Saldana can’t do much for her underdeveloped character — not that she’s a very good actress, anyway. In contrast, Sam Shepard does a very good job with his equally underdeveloped character, which helps set gloomy tone of the film.
All of its assets, there’s a gritty realism to Out of the Furnace that makes it immediate and convincing from the word go. A palette of drained out, brownish, grey and bluish tones, together with a rough cinematic texture, convey the shabbiness of the town, its abandonment and its bleakness. Nature is rendered with no embellishment, there are no blue skies anywhere. People behave, talk and argue pretty much like they would in these kind of places, one can presume. Nothing is extraordinary here — except the fierce bare-knuckled fighting.
Yet as accomplished as the atmosphere is, it somehow fails to make up for a more profound, introspective approach that sometimes the story calls for. Take the relationship with the father, the love affair, or the relationship between Rodney and John Petty: there’s certainly more material here than what Cooper cares to take into mind. It’s like opening sub plots only for setting up the conflict — and leaving it at that.
But other times, in many of the conversations between brothers, or when moments of solitude arise, hidden emotional chords surface to superb effect. This is when the film becomes very touching, when you really sink into the characters’ minds and hearts. Then what could have been a mere revenge movie becomes so much more. For a drama of brothers and fighters on the verge of destruction can be quite absorbing.
Out of the Furnace / La ley del más fuerte (US, 2013) Directed by Scott Cooper. Written by Scott Cooper and Brad Ingelsby. Christian Bale, Zoe Saldana, Woody Harrelson. Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker. Cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi. Editing by David Rosenbloom. Art direction by Gary Kosko. Music by Dickon Hinchliffe. Produced by Riza Aziz, Jason Beckman, Michael Costigan, Leonardo DiCaprio. Running time: 116 minutes.