You know the saying ‘revenge is a dish best served cold’? Out of the Furnace may just be the most implacable movie take on that that I’ve ever seen.
Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works in the steel mill in Braddock Pennsylvania; his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) has been to Iraq. Russell has a beautiful girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), gives him reason to carry on in his bleak life, while Rodney has no girlfriend, no job and absolutely no desire to work in the mill – a job he sees (rightly) as a dead end.
We get our first inkling of where Out of the Furnace might be going in the opening moments, when a nasty, higher-than-a-kite piece of work jams a hot dog down the throat of his date at a drive-in – then mercilessly pummels the guy who tries to intervene on her behalf. As the movie progresses, we learn his name is Harlan DeGroat. He is a powerful man: drugs, prostitution, big money bare-knuckle fights – all fall under his control. Plus, he rules his little fiefdom with such power that even the police are unable to afraid to enter his territory.
When Russell winds up in prison for a time because of a horrific drunk driving accident, things really fall apart. Lena moves in with the local sheriff (Forest Whittaker); his father dies, and Rodney takes up fighting in illegal matches to cover his gambling debt to local hustler/bookie Petty (Willem Dafoe). In one smaller fight, Rodney gets so caught up in the moment he forgets to throw the fight, thereby getting on DeGroat’s bad side.
From there, well, things go mostly as you might expect – with a few crucial differences.
Instead of gun battles and brawls, director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) digs into his characters. He lets us see Russell’s resignation and the way Rodney sees that as giving up and desperately wants something better. He lets us see how Lena has given up on Russell and found a small measure of hope with someone else – but that she’s never stopped caring about Russell.
His palette for Out of the Furnace is all greys, greens and blues that underscore the fundamental melancholy of his characters’ lives – and the implacability of their fates. He coaxes fire out of Affleck; still anguish and then quiet rage from Bale. Sam Shepard brings warmth and gravitas as the Baze brothers’ uncle – who can remember when Braddock was a happier, more hopeful place. Dafoe plays the sleazy Petty with an undercurrent of genuine affection and concern toward Rodney.
There may be quibbles about the film’s timeline, but it is most concerned with taking something that is a cliché (the revenge) movie and peopling it with real people with real concerns and real motivations. Cooper plays against expectations in both the intelligence with which vengeance is sought and the deliberate, implacable pacing of the film’s final act. This is not a film that works up an audience into raucous cheering for a ‘good guy’ – it is more thoughtful, more measured.
In a way, Out of the Furnace is a more ambitious movie than Crazy Heart in the sense that it tries to do more than anyone might expect from a genre piece. He mostly pulls it off.
Final Grade: B+
Photo courtesy of VVS Films