Scott Cooper’s second film after the successful Crazy Heart owes too much to films of the past to enjoy its own identity. Yet, the ensemble cast are stellar. Luke Ostler & Simon Evans take a look…
If ever there was an advert for small-town Americana, it’s the first half of Out of the Furnace. Following a brief Woody Harrelson-centred intro the viewer is introduced to a family we all think we’d love to meet; Christian Bale’s blue-collar, honest salt of the earth Russell Baze, with Casey Affleck playing the younger brother who is immediately branded as loveable yet troubled by a gambling-themed introduction. Zoe Saldana soon appears as Bale’s gorgeous yet somehow girl-next-door style squeeze, while an elderly, dying father is cared for by Affleck and the brothers’ uncle, in the shape of Sam Shepard. Willem Dafoe plays the local bar owner and bookie, clearly all things to all local men.
Director Scott Cooper, at the helm of his second feature after the successful Crazy Heart, demonstrates a lightness of touch that suggests this is a director of considerable promise. The sure-footed opening act sees Casey Affleck betting borrowed cash before getting into an argument with the cashier as to whether it was, in fact, the eighth race he had just witnessed. This introduction is played both comically and pathetically by Affleck, who is cast well, at least for the first half of the film, as a classic underachieving younger brother. He may not be the most versatile of actors, but when given the right role, as he was most notably in Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me, he remains capable of portraying real depth and subtlety.
The film’s biggest flaw, and arguably its greatest strength, is its heavy debt to masterpieces of film past. In Bale’s opening appearance he’s seen finishing work at the good ol’ steel mill; this immediately brings to mind Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, which also opens with its protagonists clocking off at the mill. Comparing films to their forebears is in vogue within the world of criticism right now, and how could it be otherwise when pictures like Out of the Furnace go so far as to appropriate specific scenes from the aforementioned The Deer Hunter, such as when Bale’s character stalks a deer in a nigh-on replication of a scene in Cimino’s film. Sadly (and this would be a tall order indeed), Cooper’s version does not emerge favourably from the inevitable comparison. The situation is compounded by the fact that the very essence of small-town America is lovingly presented for the audience to luxuriate in, another detail that, while undeniably enjoyable, is heavily reminiscent of Cimino’s working-class utopia.
As a performance piece there is much to savour. Harrelson’s role is perfectly exemplified in an early encounter with Russell Baze, Bale’s character enquiring ‘we got a problem here?’, to which Harrelson retorts ‘I’ve got a problem with everybody’. Has a villain ever been so self-aware? This viewer couldn’t help but be reminded of Harrelson’s description of Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men: ‘He’s a psychopathic killer, but so what, there’s plenty of them around’. His character swings between bare-faced rage and sardonic baiting, and indeed lacks any redeeming characteristics; we learn little about him outside of his predilection for drug use and the nature of his trade (rigging bare-knuckle brawls, in case you were expecting accountancy). It seems an odd-choice to open the film with an incidental scene involving Harrelson’s character in a drive-in movie theatre; his role never rises above ‘wafer-thin villain’, so giving him such prominence seems odd. In defence of the actor himself, he achieves exactly what the script transparently requires of him; to be a genuinely malevolent antagonist.
Saldana appears as Baze’s girlfriend, and, although the pair dovetail in relatively few scenes, they prove to be the strongest in the film. Bale’s performance is predictably excellent throughout, but the scenes with Saldana make up the film’s emotional core and are the most compelling. As the focus moves away from the Saldana/Bale relationship and onto the ominously ill-fated exploits of Affleck the early emphasis on character nuance is eagerly traded in for a less convincing action-driven narrative.
Willem Dafoe’s role is a focal one, the veteran providing the link between the otherwise saintly Baze family and Harrelson’s psychopathic red-neck. The character is interestingly scripted insofar that he plays an inert villain, for want of a better description. On the one hand Defoe’s actions are driven by moderate (if not good) intentions, yet he proves to be the linchpin in most of the unfortunate incidents that befall our heroes. Defoe’s method of acting grows into the film as the second act develops, but his overblown style seems out of place in the opening scenes. Sam Shepard mustn’t be forgotten as Bale’s uncle in a characteristically solid, un-showy performance; positively the antonym of Defoe’s efforts.
Forest Whitaker’s introduction as Police Chief Wesley Barnes proves to be almost entirely superfluous, and reeks of plot contrivance. The Last King of Scotland now seems like a lifetime away for the diminished Whitaker.
As the plot arcs we move away from The Deer Hunter comparisons and into Deliverance territory before the action culminates with a doffed hat to Once Upon a Time in the West; so much so, in fact, that the ending will lack emotional heft for any viewer unaware of Sergio Leone’s 1968 western. There is sporadic enjoyment to be had when viewing Out of the Furnace, whether it be in the wealth of solid performances or the joyful presentation of backwater America in the first half of the film. But unfortunately it fails to hit the mark as a narrative. Scriptwriter Brad Inglesby and director Scott Cooper have clumsily stitched together their favourite movie moments, and those lonely individual elements in combination can only create an experience that’s somehow much less than the sum of its illustrious parts.