Out of the Furnace
Early in "Out of the Furnace," Scott Cooper's riveting melodrama of fraternal love and revenge, there's a shot of Ted Kennedy nominating Barack Obama for President in the summer of 2008. The moment is an aside - there are no other political references made in the film, but it acts as a marker: there are dark economic days just around the corner.
Not that Braddock, Pennsylvania, the working class town where the film takes place, is in a boom even then. Far from it: the film solemnly pans over homes in need of repair and long-empty factories. The jobs that once sustained this community have long moved overseas and its decline gives the film a melancholic patina. Obama may have talked of hope, but there's little of that here.
What proves most refreshing about Cooper’s film, which he wrote with Brad Ingelsby, is that it is not a polemic on the economic downturn; rather the story of how two brothers struggle to find their way in this world where options are few. One, Russell Baze (Christian Bale), holds his own with a factory job and a girlfriend Lena (Zoë Saldana); Rodney Baze, his younger brother (Casey Affleck), though, is in a free-fall. After four tours of duty in Iraq, he’s finding it difficult, impossible, even, to re-adjust to civilian life. In debt with a local gambler, he becomes a street fighter in illegal matches that take place in abandoned factories and garages.
In the fast-moving story, Russell is sent to jail after a vehicular homicide conviction (he was driving under the influence). Once released, he attempts to salvage Rodney, who expresses his anger in a telling speech of the lingering effects his Iraq experience has had on him. He seeks out one more fight, to be arranged with a dangerously violent crime family from New Jersey, claiming it will set him free; and he implores his connection - a local crime pin, John Petty (the lean, beaten Willem Dafoe) to make the arrangements.
It may not be the smartest move. That New Jersey clan is led by Harlan DeGroat (an impressive Woody Harrelson), who, in the film’s opening moments, has shown his nasty side by beating his movie date at a drive-in for what he perceives as a slight. DeGroat is a methed-out sociopath and Harrelson makes him a fiercely real presence: the villain out of an old-fashioned western, which the film resembles. When Rodney disappears after the fight arranged by DeGroat, Russell seeks revenge.
By framing the story through this familiar movie trope, Cooper gives it gritty energy and integrity. He’s abetted by the film’s production design (by Thérèse DePrez, with costumes by Kurt & Bart) and cinematography (Masanobu Takayanagi), which enhance the sense of decay and hopelessness at every turn. There are a few missteps: Bale’s relationship with Salanda and her subsequent relationship with a local cop, played by Forest Whitaker, are sketchily handled at best, and the laconic presence of Sam Shepard, as the brothers’ uncle, brings little to the story. The scene where he and Bale go deer hunting is an obvious nod to another movie set in the Pennsylvania mill country - "The Deer Hunter" - that doesn’t resonate quite as strongly as it should.
What makes "Out of the Furnace" such an effective melodrama are the three central performances. Bale’s intensity is hypnotic to watch; with little dialogue, he makes Russell a vital, forceful presence. He also brings a surprising tenderness to a man who seems fated to set things right in the film’s dark, moral universe. Affleck swaggers like an arrogant teenager, but brings to the surface the pain that drives his self-destructive ways. Harrelson turns out to be the film’s driving force - an insidious force-of-nature. When he shoots himself up with his home-brewed meth, he nearly explodes with intensity. Cooper, who showed he’s a strong director of actors with Jeff Bridges in "Crazy Heart," gets under the skin of each of these actors and elicits rich performances from them. And "Out of the Furnace" surprises because it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than a crime story told with driving force.