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12 Dec 2013

Acting Showcase: 'Out of the Furnace' Is Dark and Sad—but Great Performances Make It Memorable

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Woody Harrelson and Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace. Woody Harrelson and Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace.

Christian Bale is at his simmering best in Out of the Furnace, a dark, often scary and desolate look at two brothers who get dealt numerous bad hands. Directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), this is not a holiday-season film designed to send you home smiling.

Russell Baze (Bale) is a good-spirited, quiet man working at the town mill. He looks out for his military-vet brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rodney is having trouble adjusting after multiple tours in Iraq that have left him physically and emotionally scarred. This makes Russell ultra-patient when it comes to his bro—even paying off Rodney’s gambling debts behind his back to a local bookie (Willem Dafoe, who somehow makes this sleazy character seem like a nice guy).

Russell, after a brutal and costly mistake, goes to jail, while his brother does another tour. When Russell is set free, he has lost his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), and his brother is in bad shape. Rodney’s debts have gotten too big, so he starts bare-knuckle boxing. He eventually finds himself in a situation in which he should be taking a dive for a nasty criminal (Woody Harrelson, playing one of the year’s most memorable and lecherous movie villains).

Rodney disappears, and Russell takes matters into his own hands when a local authority (Forest Whitaker) appears to be dragging his feet. At this point, the movie starts to really heat up, thanks to an added element involving the Whitaker character that I won’t give away.

In some ways, Out of the Furnace is a typical revenge thriller, with semi-predictable plot points. However, what makes the movie so worthy of your time is that it commits to a dark, despairing mode—and all of the performers revel in it. It’s a downbeat movie for sure, but Bale and company give it a steady, dark pulse.

Affleck has had a good year with this and the little-seen Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. His Rodney is the sort of tragic figure who feels all too real. You pull for him, but there’s a sinking feeling he can’t be helped. He has a brief face-to-face showdown with Harrelson that counts as one of his career highlights.

Harrelson is pure, unadulterated evil here. His Harlan DeGroat is established in the very first scene as an entity not to be messed with; he’s terrifying. Harrelson is such a good performer that he never falls into caricature. You ultimately get a sense that a moral code may’ve once existed within DeGroat, but that core was decimated by meth, hatred and violence.

Out of the Furnace features one of the more sublime and understated recent Bale performances. (I was reminded of his subtle, brilliant work in Terrence Malick’s The New World.) After every emotional blow, Russell seemingly remains a good man, convinced things can all work out in the end. He has an optimism that is heartbreaking to behold.

Cooper prominently uses Pearl Jam’s “Release” at the film’s start and finish. It’s a powerful song choice that sets a mood that is both triumphant and somber—a lot like the movie itself. He further adds to the mood by casting Sam Shepard in a small but crucial part. Shepard’s presence adds gravitas.

Out of the Furnace doesn’t try to make any grand statements in its two hours. It tells a sad story of two brothers who love each other, the hardships they face, the bad hits they take, and their somewhat regrettable coping choices. The film is no happy party—but it is a showcase for three actors who nail it.

Out of the Furnace is playing at theaters across the valley.

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