Set in late-2000s small-town Pennsylvania, Out Of The Furnace is an autumnal melodrama about poor life choices, bare-knuckle fighting, poverty and revenge. It’s a film full of heavyweight acting, heavy themes, and a deathly serious atmosphere that weighs it down like a pair of lead boots.
Christian Bale is gaunt and sullen as Russell Baze, a steel mill worker who’s wracked with guilt over his involvement in a fatal car accident, while Casey Affleck is chiselled and confrontational as his younger brother Rodney, an ex-soldier left traumatised and embittered following the war in Iraq.
Out Of The Furnace is hard to fault technically or in terms of acting. Even the smallest supporting roles are filled with welcome faces. Forest Whitaker appears as a gruff, well-meaning small town cop. Zoe Saldana plays Bale’s estranged lover. Willem Dafoe plays a bar owner in hock to Woody Harrelson’s vicious fight organiser and all-round low-life, Harlan De Groat.
Clearly aware they’re in a film with important, current themes – for one, the twin effects of war and an economic downturn on the working class – this solid ensemble acts as though their lives depend on it. Harrelson, in particular, is utterly terrifying as the unpredictable, brutal De Groat, a twisted individual who appears to be possessed with some kind of ancient evil. Imagine the demonic aura Dennis Hopper conjured up for his turn as Frank Booth in Blue Velvet, and then apply it to a pumped-up, moonshine-swigging, Appalachian mountain gangster, and you’re some way close to how startlingly unpleasant Harrelson is here.
Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) creates a detailed backdrop, for sure, but the story offers little in the way of hope or salvation. Occasional rays of dilapidated beauty provide a welcome reward: a mesmerising shot of a slain, skinned animal, hanging like something out of a Francis Bacon painting, or the smoke billowing from a steel mill and streaming over dank mountains.
These moments of colour and atmosphere are thanks to cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who was responsible for the stylistically similar Warrior. Takayanagi shoots with the palette and measured rhythm of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, capturing a small American town on a seemingly irreversible decline. He brings a sense of decay and malaise which permeates everything, from the pores of Christian Bale’s weathered skin to the rusty metal of old steel mills. The fall of the US steel industry has hit the place like an apocalypse, turning the factories that once provided jobs for the local populace into battlegrounds. It’s no coincidence that the film’s most violent scenes occur within abandoned, mouldering spaces.
The undeniable brilliance of the acting and cinematography is let down in part by the script, co-written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby. It’s a straight-line trudge from beginning to end, presenting hopeless situations for its characters with clearly-defined and predictable outcomes. When Casey Affleck’s self-destructive fighter becomes involved in De Groat’s scary underground boxing organisation, we know he’s in big trouble – particularly when De Groat leers at him like a fox staring through the mesh of a chicken coop.
Out Of The Furnace lacks the unusual structure of the thematically and tonally similar Place Beyond The Pines, or the redemptive angle of Warrior, or the sheer pace of Killing Them Softly. As a result, the rhythm of the storytelling makes the two hours feel like a beautifully made, stunningly acted yet depressingly predictable death march.
When the final third rolls into view, it recalls a scene from This Is Spinal Tap. The film’s hapless rock band have just received the first copies of their new album Smell The Glove, and they’re appalled yet fascinated by the stark emptiness of the cover.
“How much more black could this be?” asks a quizzical Nigel Tufnel. “And the answer is, none. None more black.”
Like Spinal Tap’s album, Out Of The Furnace couldn’t be more black. In one scene, Christian Bale simply stands on a bridge and cries for what feels like straight five minutes. It’s a film where each successive act comes off to reveal yet more misery beneath; a rusty Matryoshka doll of suffering and gloom.
Out Of The Furnace is out in UK cinemas on the 29th January.
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