The toughest thing about filmmakers who aim for the fences is that when they miss, they are not patted on the back for trying. More often, their agents, managers and folks supposedly looking out for their best interest will say, "See, this is what happens when you follow your heart. Next time make something commercial."
Saturday night at AFI FEST writer-director Scott Cooper, three years after his career skyrocket launch with "Crazy Heart," which earned singer/actor Jeff Bridges an Oscar, unveiled the world premiere of his sophomore film "Out of the Furnace." For this Virginia-born filmmaker, this movie is personal; his grandfather was a coal miner, they hunted deer together, and Cooper lost a sister very young.
The filmmaker has chops: this hardboiled Pennsylvania Appalachia noir (a total overhaul of Brad Inglesby's black-listed original "The Low Dweller") is elegantly shot by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi ("Silver Linings Playbook," "The Grey"), with a lushly emotional score by "Winter's Bone" composer Dickon Hinchliffe.
The film is impeccably acted by a superb ensemble who give heartfelt, delicate performances, especially Christian Bale and Casey Affleck as brothers Russell and Rodney Baze, respectively. Russell is a factory welder anchored by his deep love for a young teacher (Zoe Saldana), Rodney is a troubled vet who takes his aggression into the ring for bouts of rough-and-tumble fighting. Underutilized as women often are in these male-centric dramas, Saldana is terrific. She and Bale show palpable chemistry; when circumstances conspire to push them apart, it hurts. We like these characters, and except for Woody Harrelson's too-familiar bad-ass criminal, want them to thrive.
While trade reviewers Scott Foundas (review here) and Todd McCarthy (here) are upbeat, and In Contention's Kris Tapley touts Bale's performance, this Relativity film is unlikely to break out with audiences or awards voters. First, it would need a strategically perfect release--Relativity did not take the film to fall festivals, partly to save money and also because it wanted to build buzz just ahead of going wide--after weak research previews--on December 6. Also "out of the Furnace" strikes some as a tad pretentious and lacking that special something that would lend it must-see status. During his introduction to the film, Relativity chief Ryan Cavanaugh said, "You're going to need a drink after this movie."
No matter how gorgeously wrought, with a movie this unremittingly dark, with no ray of light, it has to deliver something we've never seen before. Cooper admits that he was heading for a realistic, violent rural family drama much like Michael Cimino's "The Deer Hunter." He didn't reach it. In fact, Denis Villeneuve gets closer to the mark with his well-reviewed kidnap drama "Prisoners," which despite well-calibrated support from Warner Bros., has struggled at the box office. But Cooper deserves praise for aiming high. We need filmmakers to keep striving and not play it safe. ("Out of the Furnace" trailer below.)
Also at the AFI, on Friday, David O. Russell unveiled six minutes of his much-anticipated 70s dramedy "American Hustle" (our report is here). And over at the Directors Guild of America, James Cameron did the interviewing honors for friend Alfonso Cuaron after a members-only screening of "Gravity." Cameron gave Cuaron considerable support during the four-year prep for the complex 3-D epic space adventure, which required the invention of new visual effects technology.