Like a black cloud stalking the horizon, co-writer/director Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace has all the aesthetic and sensory cues that you're about to be dropped into a no win situation.
Stuck in a vice like working class existence in middle America Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is trying to stay on the straight and narrow. Struggling with a sick father (Bingo O'Malley), working tirelessly at his mill job, and making time for his beautiful partner Lena (Zoe Saldana). However, when his brother Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck) returns from a second tour of duty in Iraq, he must try and keep him from the unsavoury practices of the town criminal underbelly, namely Willem Dafoe's drug peddling, gambling John Petty. After a freak accident he's left to tie up the frayed threads of his former life.
Cooper's direction is steady and claustrophobic. He and cinematographer Masanobu Takayamagi (Warrior) cast a cold still light over the husks of locations; everything feels rotten to the core. The picturesque glare of small town suburbia is surrounded by the twisted metal remains of factories, the edges of an encroaching wilderness and nearly condemned squats. Dickon Hinchliffe's score is just perfectly, atmospheric, swelling and masculine. Especially with some added Eddie Vedder for good measure, it merely adds to the gravitas.
Cooper cultivates two flagship performance scenes in Out of the Furnace. The tension is great and puts fierce actors in close proximity to each other. The first sees Harrelson and Affleck almost refereed by Dafoe in negotiations for participation in an underground fighting syndicate. Dafoe's Petty is tough yet wiley, Affleck's perennial adolescence imbues Rodney Jr. with just the right amount of rebellion against authority in any form. Woody Harrelson's Harlan DeGroat is like a spider prodding at the prey writhing in his web. The other vital showcase of performances sees Russell (Bale) just delivering an amazing subtle performance speaking volumes with his gaze; his uncle 'Red' played by the ever stoic Sam Shepard, a hunter in presence and practice; and police officer Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker), pleading emphatically but authoritatively to stay the course. When Petty and Rodney Jr. are off the reservation they're stuck in the arm wrestle of whether to pursue vigilante justice or to trust the structures of justice no matter how haunted they are by the hollow words.
Brad Ingelsby and Cooper craft this tragic poetry of causality and vengeance that for the most part echoes beautifully between plot and sub plot. If there's a criticism it's that from the opening scene/prologue, the script does not bury the lead with DeGroat's (Harrelson) wrath. The narrative structure gives the audience a parallel glimpse on the eventually converging threads of the plot and in a way you feel as if you're given too much too early instead of being able to sink into Russell's (Bale) perspective.
Get past the bleak melancholia of the narrative and you'll be rewarded with performances amplified in congested spaces, gorgeous metallic visuals and a brut, epic score. Out of the Furnace feels like America regressing into the wilds of the frontier.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Scott Cooper Written by: Brad Ingelsby and Scott Cooper Cinematographer: Masanobu Takayamagi Starring: Woody Harrelson, Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker
Blake Howard is a writer, a podcaster, the editor-in-chief & co-founder of Australian film blog Graffiti With Punctuation. Beginning his criticism APPRENTICESHIP as co-host of That Movie Show 2UE, Blake is now a member of the prestigious Online Film Critic Society, sways the Tomato Meter with Rotten Tomatoes approved reviews. See his articulated words and shrieks (mostly) here at Graffitiwithpunctuation.com and with DarkHorizons.com & 2SER Sydney weekly on Gaggle of Geeks.