Sunday, December 8, 2013

Movie Review: "Out of the Furnace"

So let's get this out of the way first: if you're looking for an upbeat movie, go see something else. While I cannot in any way guarantee whether you'll like this movie, I can say with almost complete certainty that you won't necessarily feel good when it's done, although you probably will be marveling at the performances.

The film takes place in industrial Braddock, Pennsylvania, a steel mill town. The economy has hit the town hard, leaving its citizens to do whatever they can to make ends meet. Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works long hours at the mill, partially to pay off the debts his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a soldier between tours in Iraq, keeps incurring. When Russell isn't working, he's worrying about their dying father and spending time with his girlfriend Lena (a luminous yet underused Zoe Saldana).

One night, in a split second, a cruel twist of fate lands Russell in prison. By the time he is released, so much has changed—his father has died, his relationship with Lena has ended and she is dating the town police chief, Wesley (Forest Whitaker), and Rodney has gotten involved with throwing fights in an effort to pay off his debt to seedy bar owner John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Thinking he has no other way out, Rodney convinces John to set him up for some fights run by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, at his most unhinged), a dangerously violent and psychotic drug dealer who runs a nefarious crime ring in New Jersey.

As Russell tries to pull his life back together after prison, he is desperate to get Rodney on the straight and narrow. But Rodney has his own desperation to deal with and his own demons to face. When he disappears after a fight, Russell fears the worst, and goes against everyone's warnings—Wesley's, Lena's, and his uncle's—and heads to the New Jersey wilderness to track DeGroat down and find out what happened to his brother.

Christian Bale's acting talent no longer surprises me, but it continues to dazzle. At times intense, at times quietly emotional, his performance is complex and tremendously compelling. There are a few scenes in particular I found myself watching with my mouth open, because I couldn't believe how good he was. Casey Affleck, whose role is smaller than Bale's, also has some tremendously powerful moments. I hope he's gotten his personal life together and continues acting, because he's just so good.

While Harrelson plays a fairly stereotypical psychopath, you still can't take your eyes off of him. While his character was on one of his violent jags, I thought that I never would have expected this type of menace from sweet Woody from Cheers. But he does menace well. Sam ShepSaldana has a few good scenes but is mostly underutilized, as is Whitaker, whose character is probably the most formulaic of them all.

I thought this was a really good movie, although it certainly was a downer. My main criticism, however, was that I had no sense of how long a period of time the movie spanned. When the movie begins, it's 2008, and Rodney is set to go on another tour of Iraq with his unit. But by the time Russell gets out of prison (you never know how long he's been sentenced for, given what the crime appears to be), Rodney is back, Lena is in a relationship with Wesley, and their father is dead and buried, but you don't know if all of this happened in a matter of months, years, or what, and I found that irritating.

How far would you go for someone you love? Would you risk it all to even the score, no matter what? Out of the Furnace strives to answer those questions, and while it does so perhaps unsurprisingly, it's still a tremendously watchable, well-acted, and intense experience.


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