Monday, September 1, 2014

OUT OF THE FURNACE | Review | **

[This originally appeared on]

OUT OF THE FURNACE is a well-made film. I respect its discipline and its hard-working craft. But I cannot abide by what it represents.

And what it represents is another one of those Americana tales that is going for the mythic by way of violence. It is achingly blue-collar – with the collar so scuffed with the dirt and grime of hard-working, economically hurting Americans that it might as well be brown-collar.

Christian Bale plays older brother Russell in the economically frayed industrial Northeast. He is trying to curtail Rodney his more impetuous sibling (played by Casey Affleck), who has just returned from a war deployment and is getting involved with backwoods criminals in an effort to earn some money. Soon upon return from jail after serving time for an accidental killing, Russell finds his brother missing. And has to deliberate on options for trying to find Rodney.

There is much to appreciate about the film’s commentary on many things. About how there is dignity in the lives of those working hard, to get by. By working in mills, by taking care of aging parents, by going off to fight the country’s wars, by taking ownership of honest but no less irreversibly harmful mistakes.  The movie does a fine job of conveying the nobility of its characters. It is hard to do this without patronizing, and the film and its amazing actors manage to reflect these lives with remarkable authenticity.

But then why soil this hard-won authenticity with savage violence. The film begins and ends with violence as horror. And then in the middle tries to find poetry in revenge. And it is this poetry in revenge that I couldn’t bring myself to buy. What is this film saying? That there are monstrous people in the world and the only way to deal with them is by retaliatory blood-letting?

I know the film is not trying to deliberately do so, but in this grim, acutely considered American tale about the degradation resulting from violence, the film instead reveals its own unhealthy fascination for violence. People are killed off ruthlessly – and quickly – leaving one wondering as to what this director was aiming for? To make the point that this happens in real life?  Maybe so, but why should this make for good cinema?

I have tremendous appreciation for Christian Bale who completely possesses this role.  Here again is reason, if you ever needed one, that Bale is best in class amongst his generation of actors. And for Casey Affleck, who is turning in consistently believable, complex turns in film after film these days. And Woody Harrelson who makes you look away in fear every time he is on screen, which is saying something considering his more recent filmography of scary bad men. There is a scene halfway through the film where Christian Bale reaches out to Zoe Saldana in a park, hoping to win back her love. It is spare, and beautifully written and sublimely acted, especially by Bale. He breaks your heart. I wish the film had towed more closely to these characters and their lives as its reason for being.

Rare is the film that touches upon so many contemporary American issues. Including how we do not seem to have a place of stability, or even dignity, for soldiers returning from war. The situation created with Bale’s character getting involved in a car accident that results in fatalities is handled with uncommon deft; how often have you see a film delve into the resultant hopeless and crippling guilt. There is so much to be said with these players in this setting. It is disappointing then that the film chooses instead in its final act to settle for being a grotesque revenge tale.

Scott Cooper, the director made his debut helming CRAZY HEART a few years ago, and that film too was about a weathered, beaten character who is trying to claw out of the hell of his addictions and failings. But that film was ultimately about redemption and so found grace in its final notes. There will be those who fill find grace in the final notes of OUT OF THE FURNACE too. I am just not one who can get behind a validation, no matter how genuine, no matter how to the bone and unadorned as it may be, but a validation no less for an-eye-for-an-eye.

OUT OF THE FURNACE is currently streaming live on Netflix. And available through Amazon as iTunes. 

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