I am drawn to dark, edgy films depicting characters that are nasty, brutish and amoral, doing inexpressible acts to their fellow man; not horror films - they are too over the top - but movies that awaken my dread of what many people gravely experience as reality. The idea of vengeance quenched is quixotic, but in the transported world of the movies retribution is possible and often probable. Director Scott Cooper’s OUT OF THE FURNACE falls into the above category, joined by a terrific cast, but disappointedly full of plot inconsistencies which to a person like myself – who tries to figure things out, those incongruities loom large getting stuck in my head becoming a prickly disturbance.
This is a film that does not equivocate about the bonds between family; the responsibility of being your “brother’s keeper”; tending to one’s ill parent, attempting to sustain an ethical life despite the roadblocks that chance and circumstance put in life’s path. The lead actor, Christian Bale, who gets better and better with each movie, stars as Russell Baze – a man who cannot “catch a break” - who we first encounter working amidst the hot, blazing steel mill furnaces in a working class, economically scarred town in Pennsylvania. Bleak images of rows of clapboard houses are familiar – we have seen them many times in many movies - photographed in the beclouded grays of hopelessness. Russell is a bright light in this fog of desolation, an inference of religious “saintliness” hangs over his persona; penance and redemption follow.
Casey Affleck, an actor who physically looks like the classic clean-cut high-school football star, though slighter in build, portrays Russell’s younger brother Rodney – wounded, erratic and traumatized from multiple tours of duty in Iraq; the sibling who his Uncle (a reliably comfortable and comforting Sam Shepard) tells us in an aside was “trouble even as a kid”. Psychologically seared by the war, Rodney cannot adapt to the ordinariness of existence and the economic deprivation he finds at home, propelling him to bizarre solutions, including gambling and bare-knuckle fighting; his Manager, a greedy and rapacious William Dafoe pushing the plot into even darker regions of emptiness and abyss.
Woody Harrelson is riveting as the vicious personification of evil ruling over his inbred clan of loathsome reprobates dealing drugs and wagering on mano-a-mano battles - not in the mountains of Appalachia but in the hills of Ramapo, NJ. Soon the “lost” brother becomes a master brawler in the arena of predatory slugfests, surrounded by fierce bloodthirsty spectators. Eventually the two worlds –one from the factory and the other from the backwoods - collide in an explosion of violence and reckoning; the interior core values of Christian Bale's character teetering at the tipping point.
Despite good supporting performances by Forest Whitaker and Zoe Saldana (though women play a small part in this testosterone suffused film,) OUT OF THE FURNACE has scenes that made me groan with frustration – how can a director get away with interspersing a deer-hunting stalk-and-kill spectacle with images of dripping blood from the movie's climactic combat fisticuffs, without resorting to cheap pretentious obviousness? There were also anomalies concerning time and place that I felt were due to sloppy editing, unsuitable to an otherwise gripping and sensitive cinematic production - a tale of a man, Russell Baze, scorched by the contingencies of fortune, fiercely struggling to maintain his innate compassion and humanity when faced with the depraved ambiance that he is impelled to confront.