Into the fire
Christian Bale is at his simmering best in Out of the Furnace, a dark, often scary, and desolate look at two brothers who get dealt numerous bad hands. Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), this is not a film designed to send you home smiling this holiday season.
Russell Baze (Bale) is a good-spirited, quiet man working at the town mill, and looking out for his military vet brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rodney is having trouble adjusting after multiple tours in Iraq that have left him physically and emotionally scarred. This makes Russell ultra-patient when it comes to his bro, paying off his gambling debts behind his back to a local bookie (Willem Dafoe, who somehow makes this sleazy character seem like a nice guy).
Russell, after a brutal and costly mistake, goes to jail while his brother does another tour. When Russell is set free, he has lost his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), and his brother is in bad shape. Rodney’s debts have gotten too big, and he starts bare-knuckle boxing. He eventually finds himself in a situation where he should be taking a dive for a nasty criminal (Woody Harrelson, playing one of the year’s most memorable and lecherous movie villains).
Rodney disappears, and Russell takes matters into his own hands when a local authority (Forest Whitaker) appears to drag his feet. It’s here that the movie starts to really heat up, thanks to an added element involving the Whitaker character that I won’t give away.
In some ways, Out of the Furnace is a typical revenge thriller, with semi-predictable plot points. What makes the movie worth your time is that it commits to a dark, despairing mode that all of the performers revel in. It’s a downbeat movie for sure, and Bale and company give it a steady, dark pulse.
Affleck has had a good year with his work here and the little-seen Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. His Rodney is the sort of tragic figure that feels all too real. You pull for him, but there’s a sinking feeling he can’t be helped. He has a brief face-to-face showdown with Harrelson that counts as one of his career highlights. He’s so powerful in this moment that the screen just melts.
Harrelson is just pure, unadulterated evil every single second he spends on screen. His Harlan DeGroat is established in the very first scene as an entity not to be messed with, and he’s terrifying. Harrelson is such a good performer that he never falls into caricature. You ultimately get a sense of a moral code that may’ve once existed in DeGroat, a core decimated by meth, hatred and violence.
This is one of the more sublime and understated Bale performances of recent years. I was reminded of his subtle, brilliant work in Terrence Malick’s The New World. With each emotional blow Russell endures, Bale gives him the true sense of a good man convinced things can all work out in the end. He has an optimism that’s heartbreaking to behold.
Cooper prominently uses Pearl Jam’s “Release” at the beginning and ending of the film. It’s a very powerful song choice that somehow sets a mood that’s both triumphant and somber, a lot like the movie. He further adds to the mood by casting Sam Shepard in a small but crucial part. Shepard just being there adds gravitas.
Out of the Furnace doesn’t try to make any grand statements in its two hours. It tells a sad story of two brothers who love each other, the hardships they face, the bad hits they take, and their somewhat regrettable coping choices. It’s no party, but it is a showcase for three actors just nailing it.