Out of the Furnace
A little over 3 years ago, writer/actor/producer Scott Cooper surprised audiences with Crazy Heart, a good-‘ole boy yarn about a washed-up country music singer played to Oscar-winning perfection by Jeff Bridges. Although Cooper had been acting and writing for some time before this maiden effort behind the camera, the film’s critical and box-office success came as a pleasant surprise, assuring the 43-yr. old Cooper a shot at seeing if he could make lighting strike twice.
Cooper’s encore certainly indicates no desire to repeat himself; Furnace is a sobering and often violent drama about the struggles of working class people who populate the rust belt of eastern Pennsylvania. Sporting an impressive cast (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe & Forrest Whittaker) Cooper and co-screenwriter Brad Ingelsby spin a tale of modest blue-collar dreams dashed by bad luck, sinking local economies & low-rent criminal thugs who prey on the venality & weakness of those on the margins of society.
Bale plays Russell Baze, a soft-spoken steel worker forced to care for his aging father while trying to steer his career-army brother Rodney (Affleck) away from participating in illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches staged by Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson). A late night traffic accident lands Russell in prison: he’s absent when his father dies and fails to keep Rodney (between tours in Afghanistan) from becoming dangerously involved in DeGroat’s world. When Rodney is murdered after a fixed match, the police seem unwilling or unable to deliver the justice that Rodney sees due his family and he becomes fixated on exacting revenge. Thus does a good man descend into the very morass he sought to help his brother avoid…</p>
Bale, the fiery 40 year old Welshman responsible for the Batman franchise has enjoyed a varied career; along with a host of typical Hollywood escapist movies, he’s shown a compelling range in small, off-beat films such as The Machinist, Rescue Dawn & The Fighter. In each of these his characters have displayed an intensity that borders on the irrational; it’s to his credit that he’s able to mark the growing turbulence of his character in this film with such nuanced sympathy.
The rest of Furnace’s cast is exceptionally strong, with Defoe, and Shepard especially fine in supporting roles which could easily have been mishandled had they been in the hands of less skilled actors. The script’s dialogue honestly captures the cadences and vulgarity of its characters and Bale’s bewilderment at the circumstances onto which he’s thrust has the makings of real tragedy. But Whitaker’s presence in an inexplicable inter-racial love triangle, Harrelson’s one-dimensional villainy and an inexplicable plot twist involving DeGroat that triggers the movie’s climax deprive the film of whatever substantive meaning Cooper might have intended. The result is a movie with intriguing ingredients but no clear sense of what it intends to convey.
The Verdict? Despite an interesting premise solid writing and fine performances, this one winds up sadly off course.
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