AFI Festival: Out of the Furnace (★★★)

out_of_the_furnace_ver2With a cast of this caliber, you wouldn’t expect anything but one of the greatest films of the year. Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace misses the mark in terms of overall excellence, though it still manages to deliver some truly outstanding performances from its two main stars: Christian Bale and Casey Affleck.

Bale is Russell Baze, a mill worker living a simple life in small-town Pennsylvania with Lena (Zoe Saldana). He drives an old truck, constantly bails his younger brother Rodney (Affleck) out of one jam or another, and cares deeply about his family as evidenced by his visits to his dying father’s bedside. Bale shines in his role. He is not Christian Bale playing Russell. He is Russell, disappearing into the part the moment a tragic event sets off a chain reaction that will change everyone’s life, and not for the better.

Bale is truly a gifted actor. His talent is seemingly limitless and he is certainly at his best in Out of the Furnace. He is able to convey so much emotion without words, a skill upon which he draws multiple times through the course of the film. He’s shown this ability before, in notable roles in American Psycho and The Machinist, but it seems somehow more important here perhaps because of the gravity of the work, a depth which is etched into his face.

Equally compelling is Casey Affleck as younger brother Rodney, a recently returned Iraq veteran who can’t seem to keep himself out of trouble as he falls victim to the 2008 economy and his own post-traumatic stress. He is a dutiful brother, though defiant and determined to make his own way, any way he can. Which, for Rodney, means taking fights for local thug John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Unfortunately for Rodney, this determination takes him down a dark and dangerous path. Affleck gives an outstanding performance, holding his own in scene after scene with Bale. Together, the two share some incredibly moving moments. One scene in particular, where Rodney explains just why he feels he has to resort to fighting for Petty, is full of emotion so intense and raw I felt like I was eavesdropping on a very personal conversation.

The rest of the cast is good, though terribly under-utilized. The film opens on Woody Harrelson‘s Curtis DeGroate, a rough and violent hillbilly. While the scene establishes his character as someone you don’t want to cross, the rest of Harrelson’s screen time is given to small moments in which we catches glimpses of his terrible nature, never fully fleshing it out until a key confrontation between himself and Petty. And even that scene gives the audience a passing moment that seems out of character for film’s most evil man.

Forest Whitaker plays Sheriff Barnes and his time on the screen is limited to a few moments and very few scenes. None of which are really key scenes to the movie. Whitaker is a brilliant actor and likely would have been great, if given the opportunity. And Sam Shepard is almost forgotten as Russell and Rodney’s uncle Red. It’s as if director Scott Cooper occasionally found Shepard wandering the set and said, “Oh, hey, will you shoot a quick scene with us?”

Out-of-the-furnace_1Pacing was another problem with Out of the Furnace. There is nothing to indicate the passage of time, although you know time has passed by virtue of what is going on in the story. After a terrible incident in the beginning, Russell spends some time in prison. How long he’s there is completely unclear, although you know it’s at least a few months. Maybe longer. This pacing problem remains an issue throughout the film and is distracting for someone like me who constantly needs to know what time it is.

What is done well, however, is in the development of Cooper’s characters, as well as setting the scene for the Pennsylvania town where the Baze brothers live, and particularly the derelict house in rural New Jersey that DeGroate calls home. The town and this house almost become additional characters in the story revealing nearly as much about the people as they do themselves.

There is also a feeling of moral ambiguity that persists through particularly the latter half of the film. How far can a man go to make something right? What is acceptable and how far is too far?

One final frustration was the very final shot of the film. Talk about ambiguity. I was left feeling confused and unsettled, which is probably intentional, but this final shot left me wondering what exactly had just happened and were there any consequences.

Cooper’s film is good, but not great. It asks a lot of important questions and wisely does not answer them. But it stops short of becoming a truly great film in its execution. This will surely not be a Best Picture contender, unfortunate with such memorable and captivating performances.

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