By Charlie Schmidlin | The Playlist November 10, 2013 at 12:20PM
In telling the story of a fundamentally decent man's descent into violence and retribution, Scott Cooper's “Out of the Furnace” plants its cues of chilly neo-noir in the claustrophobic corners of America's Rust Belt, and then nearly gets away with its own high-minded meditations. Loyalty and consequence collide in the “Crazy Heart” director's sophomore feature (from Cooper's rewrite of a script originally by Brad Inglesby), but while those themes eventually result in payoffs that are noticeably muted and confused, the film is luckily powered by a powerful trio of performances at its core, and a unique, unpredictable structure that constantly reframes the action in a compelling way.
What seems like five years pass in the film's first 30 minutes, and it makes a point to show that the change being touted on the 2008-based television screen hasn't come—or if it has, it's for the worse. In the economically dire steel town of Braddock, Penn., Russell Baze (Christian Bale) enjoys a modest life toiling in the mill during the day, before returning to his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) and also paying visits to his sick father at night. More prone to reside in the local off-track betting parlor is Russell's brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a fidgety young man who opted for military life over the mills, and now faces a “stop-loss” order for a fourth tour in Iraq. The two brothers are close, but you feel it's a relationship based more on one-sided financial dependence, at least initially.
As Russell drives home from the bar one night, he T-bones a reversing car pulling out and kills all inside, including children; the drunken manslaughter charge condemns him to a brutal prison stay while Rodney witnesses his own horrors overseas. When years later the siblings finally reunite—sunken-eyed, tattooed, and with news of their father's death—both are hollow and degraded, but only one is still optimistic.
Cooper shoots these leaps in time with a tremendously assured eye for storytelling, as he and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (“The Grey”) use their stark 35mm palette to capture subtle changes in the town's declining upkeep, or to survey the stolid faces of his lead actors for narrative background. Bale's lingering look back upon the prison when he's released says more about his stay than any flashback, while Affleck—without his character saying a word of his actions in Iraq (which he eventually does reveal)—restlessly thunders around the small town with a barely contained fury.
Unbeknownst to Russell while he was in prison, Rodney's rage is now funneled into a bare-knuckle boxing career organized by a slimy bookie (Willem Dafoe, naturally), but it's eclipsed by that of Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a ruthless, meth-dealing hillbilly who deals with Dafoe from the backwoods of New Jersey. Seen stuffing a cigar down his drive-in date's throat in the opening scene, Harrelson commands the screen with an unrelenting stare and progressively brutal methods of getting his way. He is, at first, nothing but an oppressive force of evil, and as he devises a match with Dafoe for Rodney to take a dive, the question of just how many more genre tropes can fit into a single narrative emerges.
However, the film's knowledge of its genre boundaries proves its most interesting element, which in turn enables such quality performances from the stellar cast. As fatalistic ciphers their arcs are fairly clear, but the instinctive, measured way in which Cooper treats each conventional story beat—prolonged enormously in some cases, simply a brief scene in others—surprises you with its execution.
Bale embodies Russell with perhaps his most unshowy performance to date, letting his drawled lines fall from his mouth with a trembling smile as matters quickly turn grim—a scene between him and Saldana (who otherwise gains little traction in her role) as he realizes their new relationship after prison is especially affecting. He and Affleck also share some finely tuned exchanges that highlight the binary oppression of their lives, where the prospect of legitimate work starts with the mill and strays little elsewhere.
Perhaps the most understated and enigmatic contribution though is from Sam Shepard, playing Red, the brothers' uncle that grows closer to the family once Russell gets out of prison. As a positive influence in the siblings' lives he is a symbol of stoic responsibility, but watch his face as he and Bale infiltrate a crack den later on in the story, and you see a glint of his most savage tendencies that makes you wish Cooper had devoted more time to that aspect.
Unfortunately, Shepard is not the last time Cooper will move on from an important facet, especially in the film's rather staid and meandering third act. The powerful surge of inevitability built up in the first half transfers into a decidedly different film in the second; it becomes less of a character piece, and more of an obtuse thematic effort that too often feels like it's masking its rougher edges in ambiguity (and an admittedly excellent Dickon Hinchliffe score). Cooper garners a range of well-executed, tense setpieces and a fantastic cast to pull them off, but one feels that towards its bloody finish, “Out of the Furnace” concerns itself more with creating a complexity rather than letting its characters show us one. [B]