December 8, 2013

Movie Review: Out of the Furnace

I saw the trailer for Out of the Furnace a few times in theaters. Each time I saw it, I marveled at the quality cast that had been assembled. Also, each time I saw it, I had forgotten I had already seen it before. It is a movie that, while looking somewhat interesting, did not leave much of an impact on my mind. It is a movie that did not strike that my mind as a must see. There was, of course, a certain level of curiosity, so I was sure to head off and see it.

The movie is writer/director Scott Cooper's follow up to the Oscar winning Crazy Heart. In many ways, I think Out of the Furnace is the better movie. That first movie, while very good, was very much actor driven and very much driven by one central character. I look at Crazy Heart and I am not sure the directing is nearly as notable as the Jeff Bridges performance. When you think of it, it is much more a Jeff Bridges movie than a Scott Cooper movie. With Out of the Furnace, I think we are seeing the first Scott Cooper movie. This is a movie whose success is much more driven by the direction. Yes, it has a great cast, but it is more ensemble and is in the control of the director. This is instead of a movie controlled by the central performance.

Out of the Furnace is a movie that you need to watch. What I mean is that it is not a must see, but if/when you see it, it is told with a lot of visual cues replacing the usual expositive dialogue. I am fine with that. I like to see directors using the medium as a medium and not as a vehicle for the written medium. No, I don't think this is a great film, but it does a lot of interesting things and also, strangely enough, is indicative of some of the big changes over the past few decades and made me long a little bit for the movies of the past (in most cases movies I hadn't even seen until recently).

The movie centers on the Baze brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck). They live in the rust belt, an economically depressed area that is losing business to Chinese imports. Russell works at the town's steel mill, a thankless job that Russell does (it was good enough for his dad, it's good enough for him).. His brother, however, is a different animal, a restless, caged beast who has served in the military and now that he is home, cannot bring himself to work in the mill. Be it PTSD, be it still living with what he saw, or feeling some sort of entitlement, he has chosen to become embroiled in the underground of bare knuckle boxing, courtesy of local crime boss John Petty (Willem Dafoe).

This all sounds pretty straightforward, but it really isn't. Factor in an accident on the way home after having a drink, Russell (who was supposed to be met by Rodney for said drink) finds himself in jail. This is a fact slyly revealed using visual cues. While in the system, Rodney gets in deeper, well over his head. This is likely because Russell isn't there to try and keep him straight. Meanwhile, Russell's girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana, whose throat creeps me out when she laughs), has moved on and is in a relationship with the town sheriff (Forest Whitaker). Well, Rodney gets out and attempts to resume his life.

One day, Rodney goes out and does not come back. He had gotten in deep and got involved in a high stakes fight/drug ring headed by Harlan Degroat (Woody Harrelson) and things did not go so well. It is interesting to note that Degroat was introduced right at the outset of the movie as a psychopath while on a date (I guess) at a drive in, where they are watching, of all movies Midnight Meat Train. Made me think they should have gone a touch more believable and used a movie that people would have actually gotten to see in theaters.

Well, Russell eventually learns what happens and the movie turns into revenge/vigilante territory with Russell looking to find his brother and right a wrong. It is an interesting film, using a visual dialogue to show the passage of time, to set the location, using looks to explain relationships, a nod of the head to recognize where things are going. It is a movie of little expositional dialogue. It has these characters acting in a more or less realistic fashion. I quite liked that about it. Still, I felt a bit flat as it left me longing for what it wasn't.

Out of the Furnace is a slow burn sort of movie and I kept waiting for that big moment, that thing that would change and spin everything up. It never happened. Now, this is all on me and not the film's fault, and while I still do not think it is a great movie (a good one that makes use of its star cast very well) I wanted to see a different direction.

I kept thinking of those post-war revenge type movies, or just revenge films in general from 20, 30, or more years ago. The kinds of movies that take their time to set up their characters and the set everything in motion to an absolutely bonkers, over the top conclusion. The one movie that kept coming to mind was Rolling Thunder, the 1977 movie with William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones. That movie has characters coming back from war and trying to readjust to a changing world. A major event sets Devane off and he recruits Jones for a revenge trip. It is a great film that just takes it to the limits. I could be seeing things, but I could see a relationship between these two movies and their respective characters.

Before I spin too far off the rails, I just want to say that the movie is pretty good. I like the visual shortcuts, I like how much of the relationships are left unsaid, I like how a lot of detail needs to be inferred. The slow burn quality works for it. I think I just wanted something that was a bit more in your face personal. This one took a more low key approach to the revenge fight. Out of the Furnace is well worth seeing and shows a director who is developing his style and is a much better demonstration of skill than Crazy Heart was, although that movie will likely always be more popular for him.


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