Tuesday, December 10, 2013

In Theaters: OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Scott Cooper.  Written by Brad Ingelsby and Scott Cooper.  Cast: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Tom Bower, Bingo O'Malley, Dendrie Taylor. (R, 116 mins)

Initially planned as a Ridley Scott film starring Leonardo DiCaprio (both stayed on as producers), OUT OF THE FURNACE is the second effort by CRAZY HEART director Scott Cooper, and it's an ambitious, often very subtle mood piece disguised as a revenge thriller.  Set in the mid-2000s to the present day, FURNACE takes place in a small, blue collar Pennsylvania town and Cooper does a marvelous job of conveying that unique atmosphere of a town where smoke and steam are constantly billowing through the air, everyone works at the same mill, drinks at the same bar, and everyone knows everyone.  It's the kind of place where time is not exactly frozen, but it seems to be about a decade or two behind.  Generation after generation works at the mill, and no one ever really leaves.  Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) tries to leave by joining the military and serving multiple tours in Iraq, but he comes back a damaged, broken man.  He doesn't want to work at the mill, even though it was good enough for his older brother Russell (Christian Bale) and their dad (Bingo O'Malley sighting!), who's dying of cancer.  When playing the ponies only ends up with him deep in debt to local loan shark John Petty (Willem Dafoe), he decides to be Petty's fighter in a bare-knuckle brawling ring.  Rodney takes a dive to help settle Petty's debt to Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a snarling, almost demonic meth kingpin and "inbred Jersey" crime lord who's so vicious and dangerous that even the cops--both local and state--are afraid to go after him.  Needless to say, things don't go as planned.

But the film isn't about Rodney.  It's about Russell, and one of the strong points of the script is that it takes its time building the characters and circumstances.  It's a good hour before the crux of the plot is set in motion and it works because it helps you know these people.  It's uncommon in a lot of today's mainstream cinema to be this character-driven.  It's the kind of construction that was commonplace in the '70s but has little place in today's multiplexes.  To that end, you can probably file OUT OF THE FURNACE in that same burgeoning "refusing to give the audience what it wants" subgenre of low CinemaScore grades along with KILLING THEM SOFTLY and THE COUNSELOR.  At least for a while, that is.  But more on that in a bit.

Russell has always felt the need to bail his little brother out of trouble, and that's still the case well into adulthood.  He wants to settle down and marry his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana), but after one too many drinks at the bar where he goes to settle another of Rodney's debts with Petty, he gets in a car accident that kills the occupants of the other vehicle (including a child).  The crash wasn't completely Russell's fault--the other car was backing out of a driveway and didn't see Russell's truck--but he was driving under the influence, and is sent to prison for five years, during which time his father dies and Lena leaves him for police chief Barnes (Forest Whitaker).  When the shit hits the fan between his brother and DeGroat and the police prove predictably useless, family does what family does, and Russell and his Uncle Red (Sam Shepard) decide to take matters into their own hands.

Barnes makes an interesting comment to Russell at one point, trying to talk him out of going vigilante and explaining that DeGroat and his hillbilly brethren have "entire generations who have never come down off that mountain."  You could probably say the same thing about the Baze family and their friends and neighbors.  The script doesn't really explore those parallels since we don't learn much about DeGroat's clan.  Once Russell and Uncle Red decide to take action, the film becomes inconsistent and skids a bit.  It's never believable for a moment that Russell and Uncle Red gain such easy access to DeGroat's meth headquarters and are permitted to walk out upright.  Nor is it plausible that DeGroat would just bring one flunky with him to meet a mystery man who's threatened him over the phone.  The actors are almost all superb across the board, particularly Bale who, the disastrous HARSH TIMES excepting, can disappear into any role and accent, and a terrifying Harrelson, who's introduced in the opening scene and only appears fleetingly for the next hour or so, but his powerful presence is felt even in his absence.  Shepard, who's aged into one of our finest character actors (if you haven't seen the barely-released BLACKTHORN, you're missing one of the best films of the last few years that no one's heard of), is a performer who can speak volumes without saying a word, and he's perfect as Russell's voice of reason.  The only real botch in the casting is with Whitaker, who starts using some bizarre grunting voice midway through his performance that completely derails every scene he's in from that point.  It's almost like he's trying to use Bale's Batman voice.  Whitaker has historically been a fine actor and the guy's got an Academy Award.  I haven't seen LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER yet, but this is another in a string of embarrassing performances by the actor, who at some point apparently forgot how to act.

And then there's the ending.  Without spoiling anything, Cooper has said that the final shot is an homage to THE GODFATHER PART II.  Maybe it was in the script, maybe it wasn't, but if the film ended one shot sooner, it would be remarkably more effective.  The terrible final shot destroys the ambiguity of what just came before it--which is where it should've ended--and feels not like an homage to a classic film but rather, a focus-group-suggested decision by the studio to spell everything out for audiences who want definitive closure.  The shot before the final shot wasn't quite on the level of THE SOPRANOS as far as open-endedness goes, but it would've been a much more powerful experience if it ended there.  In short, there's much to appreciate in OUT OF THE FURNACE, but some bumbling and stumbling in the second half unquestionably do it some irreparable harm.

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