“Out Of The Furnace” opens with an act of casual brutality that is shocking, and it establishes Woody Harrelson as a great white shark, just swimming along, poised for carnage as soon as he smells blood, and there is plenty of blood just waiting to be spilled in this film.
Brad Ingelsby went from insurance sales to working writer when he had a massive spec sale in 2008 for what was then called “The Low Dweller.” Ridley Scott was immediately set to direct the film, and Leonardo DiCaprio was the first person attached to star in the film. And while both Scott Free and Appian Way are still listed as production companies on what is now called “Out Of The Furnace,” this is something that Relativity Media and Ryan Kavanaugh are personally deeply invested in. Forget the life-changing amount of money they paid to Ingelsby for the spec in the first place, or the bet they’re making that Scott Cooper is going to follow up “Crazy Heart” with another awards contender… this is one of those movies that you can tell a company would like to have define what they are and what they’ll make.
Cooper’s great strength in “Crazy Heart” was the way he seemed to strip down some of the big emotional moments and keep the focus on small details instead of big explosions. He seemed to be a fan of going small and internal with even the biggest beats of his film, and it suited the material well. I can imagine what he saw as the potential of the material here, and some of that same sensibility appears to be on display in the best moments of “Out Of The Furnace.” This is a movie about very modest scaled reactions to things, even big things, and part of the way the film does that is by picking carefully how to show certain events or the aftermath of them. Cooper shows you the beginning of, say, a devastating accident that will change a character’s life, and then cut to months later, on the other side of all sorts of events, to a point where characters are simply getting back to the business of living. He certainly has an approach, and it’s very clearly expressed in the choices he makes.
In the pre-film introduction that Kavanaugh made tonight onstage at the film’s gala premiere as part of 2013’s Audi Presents AFI Fest, he evoked the name of “The Deer Hunter,” and half-joked that he thinks this is the better film. It’s an odd comparison to make. I guess in terms of setting (Steel country and the Appalachias feature in both) and some broad strokes (characters go to war or are held captive and people hunt, specifically for deer), but that’s a lot of expectation to saddle your film with just before the lights go down. That’s part of what makes me crazy this time of year as people jostle for space in “Awards Season.” It creates this all or nothing carnival atmosphere, and films have to come out swinging for the fences, and they have to pull it off in spectacular fashion, or it’s just not good enough.
“Out Of The Furnace” tells the story of two brothers, Russell and Rodney Baze, small-town boys with not a lot of options available to them in life. Russell (Christian Bale) is the good guy, the hard worker, the one who is trying to build a life of substance. Rodney (Casey Affleck) is the troubled one, the guy who has always raised the hell. Coming off of three tours in the Middle East, Rodney has already been stop-lossed for a fourth term and he’s just waiting to go back. He complicates things for himself by borrowing money from corrupt club owner John Petty (Willem Dafoe), something that Russell is worried about. He can see how close Rodney is to getting into real trouble, and he’s constantly working to pull him back from that brink.
The films packs a fair amount of events into the first half-hour or so, including a life-altering car accident for which Russell goes to jail, and by the time the brothers are reunited, prison has changed one of them, Iraq has ruined the other, and events have been set in motion that will spill all of that aforementioned blood. The film is fairly lean, narratively speaking. There’s a very simple linear quality to the storytelling, and there are some powerful moments here, some really lovely performance work across the board. Zoe Saldana, for example, plays the woman who Russell was living with before he went to prison, and while he was away, she ended up with someone else. They have one moment, their first real conversation after his release, that is shattering, and they both play it so well that I wish more of the film dealt with the simple consequences of his mistake.
Cooper can’t resist the big image, though, and he simply can’t make some of them work. In particular, there is a major sequence here that is intercut with scenes of Russell and Uncle Red (Sam Shepard) hunting for deer, as firmly on the metaphorical nose as anything I’ve seen this year. The material is so delicate that if it’s really going to land, it’s got to be underplayed, and the film’s biggest problem is that the decision seems to have been made somewhere along the way that this is A Very Serious Film. I think Dickon Hichliffe’s score is outstanding, ethereal and haunting, and Masanobu Takayanagi’s photography is a fascinating exercise in darkness. It is a very well-crafted film, and I have no doubt it is exactly the film that Cooper set out to make. It mistakes being dour for being serious, though, and Cooper hits one note so hard for the entire film that it becomes oppressive.
Both Bale and Affleck are very good in the film, and the way they play almost everything as buried, punctuated by small explosions that define them, it’s a real study in control. Dafoe is good as well, and Shepard plays things close to the vest in a way I found very compelling. Harrelson is great here, and thinking about this guy and the lead from “Killer Joe” working together in whatever HBO’s “True Detective” is has me very excited. Harrelson’s always been willing to explore his darker side, but this guy is a special level of lizard-brain killer, and Harrelson plays him as a collection of bad impulses wearing skin. The film does a nice job of setting the stage for a confrontation between Harrelson and Bale, and while that is indeed the master plan, I think the film is so determined to play in a minor key that it never fully embraces that structure, muting things at the wrong moment. And for a film that hammers metaphors as hard as this one does in places, it seems to muddle its own message in the final stretch where it really matters.
There’s a beautiful little film by Sean Penn called “The Indian Runner” that he based on a Bruce Springsteen song called “Highway Patrolman.” It features David Morse and Viggo Mortensen as brothers who play out a dynamic that’s very much like the one in this film, with Mortensen as the troubled, damaged soul and Morse as the one who tries to save his brother from himself. It’s unfair to say that a new film doesn’t work because an old one does, but it’s also hard for me not to make the comparison. There’s such a strong thematic similarity, and while “The Indian Runner” took time to make me fully invest in these brothers, in the way their family worked, and in the horrible, inevitable slide towards violence that is threatened from the film’s opening moments, “Out Of The Furnace” seems less assured in the way it attempts those same things. Cooper is undeniably talented, and especially so when it comes to working with his cast, but his new film’s ambition is not equaled by its accomplishment.
“Out Of The Furnace” opens in theaters December 6, 2013.