Monday, December 9, 2013

Out of the Furnace

It doesn't surprise me to learn that CinemaScore audiences assigned "Out of the Furnace" an average grade of C+ this weekend. It's bleak and unremitting, as far from a crowd pleaser as mainstream movies get. But the first half is very good, and even the second half - which becomes a fairly standard revenge story - contains some of the riveting scenes that merit a recommendation for true film fans.

Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, a steel mill worker in Pennsylvania who's never been farther east than Scranton. Casey Affleck is his younger brother Rodney, just back from his fourth tour in Iraq and full of sorrow and frustration. Zoe Saldana is Russell's girlfriend Lena, an elementary school teacher who leaves him for Forest Whitaker's police chief Wesley when Russell's sent away for killing someone while driving drunk. Sam Shepard plays Russell's uncle "Red," who sits with him at his dying father's bedside when he gets out of stir. Willem Dafoe is John, a bar owner who sidelines placing fresh meat like Rodney in underground fights. And Woody Harrelson, in a ruthless performance that eradicates any memory of "Hunger Games," plays Harlan DeGroat, the meth-crazed leader of a clan of Appalachians and the man who arranges (and rigs) the big-money fights to which Rodney aspires.

The movie is worth seeing for a handful of individual scenes: one between Bale and Saldana, in which she apologizes for getting pregnant (by Whitaker) and they cry for the lost future they'll never share; one in which Affleck pesters Dafoe relentlessly to set him up with Harrelson, and another in which the three men meet and Affleck, in desperate need of a favor from Harrelson, refuses to extend him the slightest courtesy or back down an inch; a scene in which Bale and Shepard come looking for Harrelson and talk their way into his house, purportedly to buy meth off one of his clansmen. The key - and most indelible -- scene takes place between Bale and Affleck. In it, Bale tells Affleck he knows he's been fighting and warns him not to be too proud to work for a living. Affleck responds with a lifetime's worth of impotent rage, culminating in a primal scream that sent chills down my spine. Affleck is a master of positioning. He knows just when and how to invade another actor's personal space to take command of the moment. 

Director Scott Cooper pads "Out of the Furnace" with a few too many parallel scenes, as of Bale and Shepard driving into the Pennsylvania woods to go hunting while Affleck and Dafoe drive into the New Jersey Woods to meet Harrelson. (We get it. They too are prey.) My friends on both sides of me checked the time early and often; even I concede the movie could be fifteen minutes shorter. And Cooper, co-writing with Brad Ingelsby, hasn't added enough fresh material to the revenge plot of the second half to make it worthy of the first. But film fans should see the picture for the tremendous performances of Affleck, Bale, and Harrelson, and solid work by Saldana as well.

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