Friday, December 6, 2013

Out of the Furnace: Not much warmth

Out of the Furnace (2013) • View trailer 
Three stars. Rating: R, for strong violence, profanity and drug content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.6.13

I’ll be happy when Hollywood gets over its current fixation on dull, dour and dreary protagonists.

The first encounter between Russell (Christian Bale, right) and the malevolent DeGroat
(Woody Harrelson) is accidental, and the latter suggests that it would be unwise to
invite a second meeting. But this is the sort of grim drama that demands precisely that
subsequent clash, under far more lethal circumstances.
Director/co-scripter Scott Cooper apparently intends his new film to occupy the urban noir territory inhabited by Dennis Lehane or Elmore Leonard, where the mean streets are inhabited by working stiffs just trying to get along, until they lock horns with giggling psychopaths. But Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby haven’t anywhere near the narrative chops of their aforementioned betters, and this new drama plays out like an average episode of TV’s Justified ... minus the gallows humor, and characters about whom we give a damn.

Any kind of humor, for that matter. I won’t accuse Cooper of attempting to out-bleak Cormac McCarthy, but he gets close at times.

The cast can’t be faulted; the actors do everything required of this grim narrative. Indeed, at first blush we can’t help being impressed by a cast that includes Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Sam Shepard, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Zoe Saldana. That’s a strong ensemble, and everybody imbues their respective roles with emotional depth and a persuasive sense of presence.

But as the screenplay drones on, our expectations waver. This two-hour flick is v-e-r-y slow, and it becomes apparent that all these people are doomed, in one way or another. The best possible outcome is surviving to be stuck in the dying Rust Belt hamlet of Braddock, Pa., where the local steel mill — which has given honest work to generations of blue-collar workers — is about to shut down.

And the worst? A bullet in the brain. After a tediously contemplative speech.

The absence of hope hangs over this storyline like a shroud; it’s accompanied by a similar absence of any spiritual values. Braddock’s men folk work hard, drink harder, sleep like the dead and then rise to repeat the ritual, day after grinding day. I’d love to acknowledge Cooper and Ingelsby for insightful commentary on the fading American dream, but that would be giving them far too much credit. This saga is simply depressing.

A brief prologue introduces us to Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat, a crafty, ferociously brutal monster with a hair-trigger temper, who clearly is Nobody To Be Messed With. (So, naturally, we can expect our other players to do precisely that.) As has been the case numerous times before, Harrelson is completely believable in such a role; he’s the stuff of ghastly nightmares, his devious grin far scarier than his hardened scowl.

Our hero — if such a term applies — is Russell Baze (Bale), who seems to have made peace with his lot in life. He has a devoted girlfriend (Saldana, as Lena) and steady employment at the steel mill. But family matters have become stressful; Russell’s younger brother Rodney (Affleck) has become an emotional wreck after numerous tours of duty in Iraq, and their father is gasping away his final days, clinging to life in a bed, having been poisoned by the very career that grants Russell his weekly paycheck.

But before we can get much of a bead on the various character dynamics involved here, Russell drives drunk and causes a road accident that kills a parent and young child: a random act so heartbreakingly catastrophic that the film never recovers. If the goal is to alter Russell’s life via a brief prison stretch, Cooper and Ingelsby could have concocted any number of more palatable options.

Bale, a notoriously dedicated method actor, certainly laces Russell with the soul-deadened emotional withdrawal that a guilt-ridden man would experience, after such an event. We don’t doubt the sincerity of Bale’s performance; I simply wish the subsequent narrative had better places to go.

Cooper and Ingelsby also are sloppy with respect to the passage of time; Russell’s prison stretch could be anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years (probably the latter). When he finally gets out, his father has died, and Lena has moved on to the greater security of a relationship with the local sheriff (Whitaker).

Things are much worse with Rodney. Unwilling to work at the steel mill, mired in debt because of an addiction to horserace betting, he has embraced bare-knuckle boxing as a means of keeping his head afloat. Initially, Rodney confines such activities to matches staged by local bookie John Petty (Dafoe), who has a soft spot when it comes to the Baze brothers. Petty’s relationship with Rodney is almost paternal, but — alas — the latter simply refuses to behave with any common sense.

Rodney’s recklessness isn’t merely a cry for help; he’s far past that, having slid into the misery of a constant death wish. The long-absent Russell might have been able to pull his younger brother out of this funk, had circumstances not separated them for so long, but as it is...

And when Rodney realizes that he’ll never climb out of his financial hole with the small-potatoes bouts put on by Petty, he insists on a high-stakes fight orchestrated by DeGroat, who runs a ruthless backwoods crime ring in New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains. DeGroat and his “inbred scum” are so nasty that the local law doesn’t dare venture into their territory.

Things go from bad to worse, and suddenly Russell is faced with a fresh decision ... but we’d be hard-pressed to believe that either option, at this point, will bring him emotional peace.

The film is filled with well-nuanced, often poignant scenes; Cooper, who helmed Crazy Heart, certainly has no trouble eliciting fine work from his actors. The brotherly bond between Russell and Rodney is close but closed off, neither man able to get beyond the macho posturing demanded by their upbringing and environment. That demands subtle shading, and Bale and Affleck make it feel real.

Similarly, a post-prison encounter between Russell and Lena is deeply moving for its intimate intensity, and particularly for the words left unspoken.

The story’s best relationship, though, is that between Russell and his Uncle Red (Shepard), the latter a quiet, protective presence in this family’s life. Shepard is a master of minimalist acting, able to convey impressive emotional complexity with a thoughtful gaze or hardened stance.

Dafoe, as well, gives a good reading of his scrappy, unexpectedly kind-hearted bookie. We’ve no doubt that Petty has done plenty of larcenous things, and that — under certain circumstances — he’d not be a man to cross. Yet he’s as protective of his home town as he is of the Baze brothers, and rightfully fears inviting any participation by DeGroat’s clan.

We can’t help liking some of these people, and worrying about them; the performers work hard to ensure our empathetic involvement. But the story itself betrays our trust, all the way up to a maddeningly vague final scene that leaves even more questions unanswered.

I’ve felt this way before, with Cooper’s work. Much as I admired the fine performances given by Jeff Bridges and Maggie Gyllenhaal, in Crazy Heart, it was impossible to believe that her character would be so foolishly trusting, when it came to leaving her young son in Bridges’ care. That was simply daft, as are many of the ill-defined plot contrivances that coldly lead to this new film’s inevitable, well telegraphed conclusion.

As I’ve noted on many occasions, well-conceived characters are only half the battle. Where they go, what they do — what prompts them to mature — is equally crucial. We must be invested in them for a reason ... and, ultimately, Out of the Furnace gives us no reasons at all.

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