Pearl Jam’s now classic song, “Release,” opens and closes Scott Cooper’s excellent new film, Out of the Furnace. Taken from their debut album, Ten, this track reflects the band’s early work, music steeped in the sound of classic rock and 70s punk. Like Pearl Jam’s best music, Cooper’s searing drama is deeply rooted in the 1970s, taking on the tone and rhythm of the New Hollywood directors who dragged the film industry out of the overblown rut it’d fallen into and producing personal and often esoteric films. With a superb cast, a strong script (which Cooper co-wrote) and themes that resonate with people across all political and economic lines, Out of the Furnace is a powerful follow-up to his first picture, Crazy Heart, and proves that he isn’t a one hit wonder.
The tone of the film is established in a prologue in which we meet Woody Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat, a vicious criminal who runs the hillbilly underworld of the New Jersey backwoods. A confrontation at a drive-in movie ends with DeGroat pummeling another man. Right off the bat, we know that this is will be a violent, dark movie.
The action then jumps to the steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Christian Bale and Casey Affleck portray brothers Russell and Rodney Blaze. Russell (Bale), the older one, works at the steel mill where his father and uncle (Sam Shepard) both earned livings before him. Rodney (Affleck) chooses the only other honest alternative in their decaying town: he joins the Army. The film begins in 2008, as Obama is on the campaign trail and the promise of a new America is on the horizon. The Blaze boys’ father is dying and they take turns caring for him, Russell is in a loving relationship with a lovely woman named Lena (Zoe Saldana), and Rodney is about to return to Iraq for a second tour of duty.
Russell learns that Rodney has been playing the ponies and is in debt to a local bookie, John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Instead of admonishing his brother he wants to cover his losses. The strong bond between the brothers is immediately evident in these opening minutes. Bale and Affleck create a natural rapport, goofing on each other with an undercurrent of love and respect. Soon after, Russell meets with Petty to square some of the debt, and then tragedy occurs.
While driving down a two-lane road, Russell is momentarily distracted and crashes into another car. The passengers in the other car are killed. Beforehand, Russell had been drinking and even though he may not be drunk, he still goes to prison. From there, whatever hope Out of the Furnace might have shown us drifts away like the smoke from the mills.
Years go by, with the passage of time shown through Rodney’s prison visits with Russell. Their father dies, Lena ends her relationship with Russell, and Rodney has been back to Iraq for two more tours. Both brothers must do regretful acts in order to stay alive. What they’ve done isn’t described, but their experiences are etched in the lines on their faces and the dark shadows around their eyes. By the time Russell is released, Rodney is a hardened, tortured soul and he’s moved on from betting on horses to betting on himself, competing in bare-knuckle fights for Petty.
Russell tries to regain his footing. He picks up at the steel mill, even though it’s future is in doubt; he pines for Lena, even though she’s now involved with the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker); and he does his best to restore his father’s house to bring some life back to the old home. Meanwhile, Rodney presses Petty to get him a fight in DeGroat’s Jersey fight circuit. That’s when everything goes to hell.
This is a bleak film, as gray as the Pennsylvania skies where it was shot in its entirety. Yet there are moments of grace throughout, little gestures that give the environment and especially the characters humanity. Despite what the movie trailer implies, Out of the Furnace is not a revenge thriller. This is a character driven drama about the bond of family and how far a man is willing to push that bond to prove his loyalty. It’s a film about a dying community and the desperate measures men are willing to go to survive. It’s a film about war – the war overseas and the war inside the men who return, broken and full of guilt. It’s a film about consequences our actions have on others. Above all, it’s a film about loss – the loss of your identity, the loss of love, the loss of life, the loss of the community, and the loss of family.
Despite the downbeat story, there is poetry and beauty in the cinematography by Masanobou Takayangi and Dickon Hinchliffe’s acoustic driven score. And the acting ranks among some of the finest on screen this season. Christian Bale embodies his character so well, you’d swear he was born and raised in the Keystone State. Unlike some of his films, in which you can see him “acting,” Bale seamlessly becomes Russell, carrying himself as a broken man who refuses to be defeated. Casey Affleck delivers one of his most soulful performances yet. It isn’t in what he says, but what he withholds from the audience for most of the movie. Only once does Rodney let his guard down, exploding at his brother in rage and guilt and describing some of the actions he had to take while away at war. You see some of this scene in the trailer, but there is so much more to it. The scene is devastating and Affleck nails it. In the years to come, people will look back at these two performances and say that they are high points for both actors.
Harrelson and Whitaker each do excellent work, but the revelation to me was Zoe Saldana, whose previous work in big budget action films like Avatar, Star Trek and Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, wouldn’t suggest that she could hold her own with such powerhouses like Bale and Whitaker. She not only matches their intensity, but nearly steals the scenes she shares with the two Academy Award winners. If Russell is the heart and Rodney is the soul of this movie, then Lena is the moral compass and Saldana plays her to perfection.
Cooper, who directed Jeff Bridges to an Academy Award and Maggie Gyllenhaal to a nomination, proves himself to be an excellent actor’s director. He also has a knack for letting a scene breathe, through the work of his actors, his camera choices, and the pacing of the editing. Crazy Heart had a tendency to lag in places, but Out of the Furnace keeps moving and doesn’t let up until the final moments. This is a more accomplished film that Crazy Heart and shows great promise for this young director.
The film closes out with a reprise of Pearl Jam’s “Release.” However, PJ’s lead vocalist, Eddie Vedder, rerecorded the vocals for the sole purpose of these end credits. Twenty years after the song came out, Vedder’s voice is aged, more intense, and his singing comes from a different place internally than when he was a young man.. Just like Vedder, the characters in Out of the Furnace have been through so much. Will the be able to get over the events of this movie? The ambiguous final shot leaves me wondering.