‘Out of the Furnace’: Brilliant Christian Bale as a solid guy in a shaky world
By Richard Roeper Movie Columnist December 5, 2013 3:42PM
‘OUT OF THE FURNACE’ ★★★★
Russell Baze | Christian Bale
Harlan DeGroat | Woody Harrelson
Rodney Baze Jr. | Casey Affleck
Wesley Barnes | Forest Whitaker
Lena Taylor | Zoe Saldana
Relativity Media presents a film directed by Scott Cooper and written by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby. Running time: 1 hour and 56 minutes. Rated R (for strong violence, language and drug content). Opens Dec. 6 at local theaters.
Updated: January 7, 2014 6:14AM
It’s a simple enough scene, really. Christian Bale’s Russell Baze is recently out of prison and hoping to reunite with Zoe Saldana’s Lena Taylor, who has taken up with the sheriff while Russell was away. You can see by the look in Lena’s eyes she’s never stopped loving Russell.
What happens next should be left for you to experience. It is a scene expertly written, filmed and acted. After Lena walks away, Russell is left alone on a bridge. Without any attention-grabbing histrionics, Bale plays every moment of that scene so perfectly, you feel as if you’re eavesdropping on real life.
One hesitates to dive into the reference bag to say “a young Marlon Brando” when lauding a performance, but Bale is that good here. That GREAT here.
“Out of the Furnace” is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Director and co-writer Scott Cooper’s second feature (his first was “Crazy Heart,” which won an Oscar for Jeff Bridges) is a stark, bleak, intense drama set in a dying corner of the Rust Belt. This is a place where it always seems cold, and everyone’s house is in need of repairs. Even if you’re lucky enough to have a job at the mill, you know it won’t be for long.
With echoes of everything from the Charles Bronson bare-knuckled fighting classic “Hard Times” to “The Deer Hunter” to “Winter’s Bone,” this is a story of some tough, flawed people who deep down want to do the right thing — and some tough, soulless people who will chew up and spit out anything that gets in their way.
“Out of the Furnace” is set in Braddock, Pa., in 2008. The locals barely pay attention to the visuals of U.S. Sen. Teddy Kennedy lauding U.S. Sen. Barack Obama on the TV sets in the bars, and Obama talking about “hope and change.” It means nothing to them from where they’re sitting, in a town destined to slide right off the map.
We open at an outdoor drive-in theater, where Woody Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat explodes in a violent rage over the smallest of perceived slights. We later learn DeGroat is the unquestioned king of a deep backwoods enclave in New Jersey — the kind of place where even law enforcement doesn’t mess with the locals who have lived there for generations. Dealing meth and getting tweaked on his own supply, DeGroat is Walter White from TV show “Breaking Bad” without even the beginnings of a moral compass. DeGroat is pure, fuming evil.
Bale’s Russell is a solid guy who’s probably been in trouble here and there but is trying to walk the straight path. It’s Russell’s younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) who’s the tinderbox —home from three tours of duty in Iraq, sinking deep into debt with stupid bets at off-track betting, seething with rage about what he’s seen in Iraq and the utter indifference he’s met with upon his return.
Their mother is gone. Their father is dying. The only thing good in Russell’s life is the beautiful, sweet Lena. The only thing good in Rodney’s life is his brother looking out for him, which seems like it won’t be enough to save him.
But it’s Russell who winds up doing an extended prison stint. And by the time Russell gets out, many terrible things have transpired, and he’s powerless to do anything about most of these events. He missed his own best chance at a good life.
Incapable of handling a regular civilian job, Rodney turns to bare-knuckle fighting to earn cash. Rodney talks his way into a big-money payday in that backwoods Jersey town, which lands him neck-deep in DeGroat’s world. The fight scenes are so brutally realistic you want to turn away, but we know there are greater, potentially fatal horrors waiting outside the ring if things don’t go DeGroat’s way.
What a great ensemble! Affleck is terrific. Willem Dafoe is perfectly cast as a local bar owner and bookie who’s involved in all sorts of shady doings, but still has a soft spot for Russell and Rodney. Sam Shepard is stoic greatness as Russell’s uncle. Forest Whitaker is, well, Forest Whitaker playing the sheriff who’s with Lena and knows she’ll never love him the way she loved Russell, but he’s not about to give her up.
From the use of Pearl Jam’s “Release” as a framing device to Masanobu Takayanagi’s breathtakingly beautiful, 35 mm Kodak cinematography, Cooper makes one brilliant choice after another. Even the smallest detail, e.g., the way everyone at a small dinner gathering heads into the kitchen to scrape the plates and put the dishes into the sink, feels just right. And when Cooper directly borrows moments, one from “The Deer Hunter” and one from “The Silence of the Lambs,” it feels like homage, not easy rip-off. He’s earned those scenes.
I was surprised to learn Bale is only about a year older than Affleck. The age difference between the brothers they play is a few more years, but we can tell Russell has been looking out for Rodney forever, and Rodney admires the hell out of his older brother — yet can’t help but create situations that could kill one or both of them.
Bale has given a number of memorable performances, but this just might be his best work to date. The Wales-born actor looks, sounds and comports himself like someone who’s been living in the same Pennsylvania town his whole life, who knows he’s probably going to die in that town and just wants to make the best of it. Bale strikes so many different notes and hits each with the same precision, whether Russell is enjoying a tender moment with his girlfriend, using his charm to get Rodney out of a jam or methodically doing what has to be done when the proverbial s--- hits the proverbial fan.
It’s as good as any performance I’ve seen all year.