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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Out of the Furnace 2013 * * * Stars

Out of the FurnaceDirector: Scott Cooper
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Woody Harrelson

Out of the Furnace is a slow burning sledgehammer of a movie. That doesn't mean it's a masterpiece but it's one of those flicks that I actually wanted to run a bit longer. Granted, it's a master class in acting, direction, style, and mood. What keeps it from reaching the pinnacle of greatness lies in editing which seems to be wound so tight that the film as a whole, might burst. I do however, applaud almost everything that inhabits the screen. But I wanted to know more about the characters. I also wanted a blueprint of a more calculated back story surrounding them. Everyone in their roles, although not fully realized, do a superb job. In essence, this vehicle probably has the best group of actors in anything I've seen all year. Christian Bale as the lead, makes being a movie star look so darn easy. He's effortless in everything he plays. You wouldn't know the guy is of Welsh descent because he can slip into any accented role with any sort of cranked up ethnicity. Then there is Casey Affleck who has really come into his own these days. He's come a long way from being his hap hazard brother's sidekick in 1997's Good Will Hunting. Rounding out a cast that never and I mean never hits a false note, is veteran thespian Woody Harrelson (he's antagonistically horrific), Oscar winner Forest Whittaker (underutilized a bit), and good ol' Sam Shepard. Oh and did I mention some limited, yet strong supporting work from love interest Zoe Saldana (she plays Lena Warren, Bale's character's former squeeze).

Anyway, all the actors/actresses in "Furnace" do their due diligence by nodding to Scott Cooper's authentic direction. I'm faithfully recommending this thing based solely on the use of its Pennsylvania locales, the performances which are first rate (and possibly Oscar worthy), and the atmospheric images that will grip and entrance you for just under two hours. What keeps me from taking that recommendation further, is the absence of a more complex undertaking concerning the actions of everyone involved. Bottom line: "Furnace's" storytelling is a little too straightforward even for me. It's the movie equivalent of one slice of pizza. Yeah, it tastes good but before you know it, it's already gone and you want more. The problem is, that's all you're gonna get.

Depicting people that look as though they've not slept in days (and seem to have not attempted to wash their hair either) and produced by legendary director Ridley Scott, Out of the Furnance is a showcase for characters that have a bleak existence in a musty, gloomy steel mill town. Living somewhere near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, they unwillingly have come to accept and adapt to their surroundings. And most of the futures that they hold for themselves, seem futile and sort of desolate. As the film opens, we see Russell Baze (Christian Bale, powerfully calm) getting off work and finding his younger brother (Rodney Baze, Jr. played by Casey Affleck) betting on horse races that add up to loses of about $1,500. You see Russell's brother just got back from serving his country in the armed forces. He doesn't want a regular job. He wants to do more than just get by. When Russell repays part of his brother's debt which is owed to a bookie named John Petty (played by William Dafoe in a performance that strays away from his normal acting persona), he then gets into a drunk driving accident, kills a fellow motorist, and goes to prison. While he's away, he loses his girlfriend (the fiery Zoe Saldana) and his brother then goes on to participate in bare knuckle fighting contests to make ends meet (the boxing scenes seem right out of David Fincher's Fight Club). "Furnace" then switches gears with Bale's Baze getting out of the state of incarceration only to find out about his younger brother's trysts eventually getting out of control. Rodney wants to make more money sparring underground. And against the advice of his connection with Dafoe's character, he then gets picked to take a fall in an important bloody match (this time without knuckles being taped). This fight, happening 5 or 6 hours away in New Jersey, is orchestrated by a despicable crime ring leader named Curtis DeGroat (played by Woody Harrelson who is so evil and demented, he may haunt your dreams). For whatever reason, Rodney doesn't come back so his big brother, shotgun and all, takes the law into his own hands.

For lack of a better word, Out of the Furnace is an old fashioned revenge tale and a sort of back road film noir. My initial observation of it was how it confused me in terms of its time and place. The opening scene had Woody Harrelson's character at a drive-in theater even though it seemed like the film was set in present day. Therefore, I thought to myself, do those types of theaters still exist? Then there was the fact that Affleck and Bale were cast as brothers. The chemistry was there but wow, they sure didn't look they could ever be related. As for the setting in this vehicle, I wasn't necessarily confused. I just thought to myself, is this some sort of post apocalyptic environment where everyone is dressed up with what they might have stole or found laying on the ground? Frankly, when you combine every one's unkempt personal appearance with the gloominess of the sky, the filthy homes they live in, and the bloodied up face of Affleck's Rodney, you'll never see another film where this much grime is plastered on the screen. You want everyone to literally get cleaned up and seek a spa treatment of some sort.

When you put it all into perspective though, Out of the Furnace is a satisfactory drama/thriller that for most of the way, wants to give the viewer their money's worth. It's a real movie. It's also dungeonous, depressing, dirty, and grubby. When things come to their forgone conclusion, there is a feeling of scenes being rushed with an ending that although fetching and metaphoric, is rather abrupt. Ultimately though, "Furnace" gets pretty much everything right despite the forced simplicity bestowed on the movie goer. I wouldn't be surprised if there was maybe one or two acting nominations from the Academy. And if I had the power, I'd personally nominate the whole state of Pennsylvania because it feels like a supporting player suffocating everyone in the movie around it.

To end this review solidly, I will say this: as a perfunctory revenge piece that doesn't quite expand on its complexities, Out of the Furnace is tops all around. But as a serious contender for one of the 5 best films of the year, it may or may not be a little "out of" its league.

Written by Jesse Burleson

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