Russell Baze (Christian Bale) had a life that was anything but perfect, yet he appreciated it for what it was. Between a job he was good at, and his loving relationship, he was a man with heart to spare. Much of that extended to his hard luck brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq War vet with a penchant for losing ground in his schemes to get ahead. Having paid off Rodney’s debt to bookie Petty (Willem Dafoe), Rodney set to serve another tour overseas, and girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), talking baby, Russell seemed set. One careless traffic accident later, and that life was interrupted by a prison sentence.
When that life resumed, it was far from the one he left behind. Lena had moved on to the local Sheriff (Forest Whitaker), and Rodney had taken up prize fighting to settle his financial and PTSD troubles. When Rodney pressures Petty into signing him up for a higher stakes match, Petty introduced him to the world of Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). This would have consequences beyond Russell’s means to resolve or repay.
Out of the Furnace could have been considered two entirely separate films, given the stark differences, in story and tone, of what was essentially two halves. The first half served as a set up for the second; but took on such a life of its own, that the second half almost felt like an abandonment of the first. The separate halves also framed two distinct settings (the blue collar industrialist town, and the most rural backwaters of Appalachia) then promptly set them against each other. To its credit, Out of the Furnace could have easily turned into Next of Kin, but did not. Russell Baze did not suddenly becoming an action hero, and his amateurish vigilantism had tragic, real ramifications.
Christian Bale has become somewhat hard to watch, for me; but that can be summed up as insisting on seeing how sausages are made. Knowing the pathological lengths to which he has gone, to inhabit his roles, distracted me some. No criticism of his authentic, deep, and layered performance; I just couldn’t shake thoughts of him in films like The Machinist. Russell Baze, however, was fully realized as an exercise in letting go. He let go of his fear and faced the music for the crash; he let go of Lena, when it became clear that her dreams were being better realized in her new relationship; he let go of his civic obedience on his brother’s behalf; finally, he let go of his aversion to do harm.
On that last point, there was a key scene that ran parallel to the climax of the first half. Russell and his uncle, Red (Sam Shepard) went hunting. Red mentioned, in passing, that he wanted to see if he were still the better shot of the two. Russell had a buck dead in his sights but did not shoot, telling his uncle he saw nothing, even as Red was field dressing his own kill. That scene, added to the climax of the second half, suggested that Russell was never a bad shot; just that he was reluctant to kill. That notion lent a special perspective to his confrontation with DeGroat.
Casey Affleck was hard to watch for an entirely different reason. His was the effective portrayal of that train wreck we all know, but can’t help but sympathize with. Rodney was a fighter. A fighter that did not seem to know how to do anything else – even win – so he kept fighting, literally and figuratively, just to keep going. He represented a disenfranchised generation of veterans with nothing to show for their pain, and left to fend for themselves in a society they could no longer function in. The course of his anguished fury, while tragic and avoidable, was still somehow inevitable.
Zoe Saldana has what I call “the Halle Berry” problem. Spike Lee and critics alike were skeptical of Berry’s ability to play a crack-head for Jungle Fever. She was just too pretty. While Saldana did not quite belie her natural charms to the degree Berry did, it would be unfair to assume such charms do not exist in Furnace‘s setting. It would also be prejudicial to assume someone possessing such charms would not be interested in a man like Russell. I would challenge viewers to look past her distracting looks and not see an understatedly evocative performance.
I have always been a little scared of Woody Harrelson’s characters – and yes, I mean going all the way back to Cheers. A common denominator to all of his roles has been a folksy authenticity that made his performances seem unscripted. That quality, which made his Cheers character seem so delightfully random, lent itself perfectly to his performance in Natural Born Killers. Some saw N.B.K. as an attempt to break from his Cheers image, I saw an extension of it; and a string of edgy characterizations (from Wag the Dog to Zombieland) have seemed to borne that out. That said, I think Out of the Furnace may have been his best turn as the heavy – at least since N.B.K.
DeGroat broke the tension in the very first scene of the film, and maintained a heightened level of menace throughout his appearances. Even at his most sedate, DeGroat’s idiosyncratic logic, combined with his established hair trigger temper, and physical prowess, made his every scene a threat to any and everyone who shared it. Worse, he seemed convinced that anyone who engaged him, in any way, for any reason, was somehow consenting to whatever his unhinged reaction would be. With that world view, in a lawless world to himself, DeGroat was a man capable of anything. Scary.
The other players in the film seemed to serve more symbolic roles, as either surrogates or extensions of the two brothers. Petty might very well have been Rodney’s sense of temperance and reason, ignored at peril. Red could have been considered Russell’s darker half; the side of him that kills without hesitation and champions direct, decisive action. The Sheriff could have then been the embodiment of the consequences to Russell’s actions. He was there to take care of Lena after Russell’s reckless driving sent him to prison, he was there to witness (and presumably return him to prison for) his final act of vengeance, and would serve as a reminder of, and warning against, both outcomes for much of the film. In that regard, Forest Whitaker displayed just the right combination of patient disapproval and measured authority.
I could not help but compare Out of the Furnace to A Single Shot. Both were character driven treatments on lower class pursuits of happiness and fortune in small town/ rural settings; but the execution seemed somewhat reversed, in certain respects. Where A Single Shot made the insulated rural community a universal character, in itself, Out of the Furnace made it an antagonist, of sorts – an impenetrable obstacle to townies like Russell. Where A Single Shot‘s villain was an outsider, Russell was the outsider for Out of the Furnace‘s second half, trying to get to an untouchable DeGroat. We did, however, get a much better feel for just how bad a villain DeGroat was, while A Single Shot‘s villain was more vague – representing a fear of the unknown. For good measure, I even noted A Single Shot‘s use of grand landscape vistas, as visual aids, versus Out of the Furnace‘s use of landscape shots panned from dark interior structures (doorways, windows, a tunnel exit, etc.). I imagine the latter represented the transition from one world to the other.
The real difference, however, was in the furthering of plot. While A Single Shot found ways of making everyday occurrences consequential, Out of the Furnace tended to rely on a series of convenient coincidence. In fact, the entire second half would not have been possible without a major coincidence, in the form of a minor accident. Some part of me even groaned a little when the final confrontation was extended by way of the industrial maze device. The need for viewers to suspend disbelief does undercut the gritty realism the film somewhat relies on. The acting and direction, however, should deliver for viewers who do.