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USA 2013
Directed by
Scott Cooper
116 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

Out Of The Furnace

Synopsis: Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works hard for a living at a Pennsylvania steel mill. He cares for his dying father at night and shares his love with local kindergarten teacher, Lena (Zoe Saldana). When his headstrong brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), returns from Iraq and racks up gambling debts, both men are drawn into a nightmare involving an Appalachian crime ring headed by the ruthless Harlan de Groat (Woody Harrelson).

Scott Cooper, director of Crazy Heart (2009) returns with another powerful film about Struggletown USA. It is also once again a film about men but this time men who are at opposite ends of the moral spectrum. The Baze family, including Uncle Gerald (Sam Shepard), despite their rough and rowdy blue colour lives have good hearts and a strong work ethic, whilst the low-lives they get entangled with, simply put, are scum-of-the-earth thugs, with no interest in anyone or anything beyond drugs and money.

I emerged impressed but also depressed from this sad and dark film. There are many films, such as the currently screening Nebraska, set in dying small-town America. Here the mill and life in general is dreary and soul-destroying. Added to which the randomness of life has the Baze family firmly by its neck. An accident sees Russell land up in jail and the train of events that this sets off are heartbreaking for all concerned.

The question asked is, however, how does one handle the deal that life serves up? Rodney, scarred by his tour of duty in Iraq, gambles and fights. Affleck incisively captures the lot of the angry individual at odds with the world and himself. Bale, who brings an impressive depth of feeling to his role, walks a precarious tight-rope between the diligent and even resigned working class guy, albeit one who occasionally lets his tenderness and vulnerability shine through, and an emotional volcano with the propensity to make catastrophic decisions, especially when revenge and his sense of justice are concerned.

Harrelson, well-accustomed to playing nasties, surpasses himself here. De Groat is a sociopathic, psychopathic, misogynistic junkie with a menace quotient enough to make me tremble in my seat. The opening scene at the drive-in, where he brutalises his woman and other customers is chilling. Another stellar veteran, Willem Dafoe, plays John Petty, a minor crim who sets up backwoods bare-knuckle fights, but compared to de Groat he has a soul and a sense of responsibility. Saldana as the devoted kindergarten teacher is a welcome contrast to these testosterone-driven guys, whilst Forest Whittaker provides a more measured, gentler presence as Wesley, the local cop, who finds that his jurisdiction simply doesn’t extend to the backwoods hillbillies. Complicating matters, his life is entangled with Russell's on a personal level.

Out Of The Furnace is not normally the kind of film I would enjoy as much as I did, as there are some violent scenes that are tough to watch. At times there is a too-familiar feel about some aspects of the plot, notably in one important scene foreshadowing later events in which  Russell and his uncle go deer-hunting. Arguably the too obvious reference to The Deer Hunter (1978), also set in a steel town and also looking at post-war trauma, should have been omitted but the empathy and complexity that Cooper brings to his characters are truly moving.




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