Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
Directed by: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Woody Harrelson
Working class communities on their last legs provoke a dull and constant sadness when set to film. There’s something fundamentally disheartening about watching a way of life die, even if the progress that replaces it is clearly better. North Braddock, the “Birth Place of Steel”, provides the physical furnace from which residents are either tied to, or trying to escape from, in this moody and atmospheric crime drama. Leaning too heavily on well-trodden conventions, the end result is still an absorbing experience once it rides a second act slump.
After his flamboyant turn in American Hustle, Christian Bale is back on brooding form as steelworker Russell Baze. He’s a hard working and loving man, frequently putting in double shifts to save up for a life with his girlfriend Lena (an underused Zoe Saldana), while visiting his dying father with his uncle Red (Sam Shepard). The effective head of the family, he also tries to look out for his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq veteran struggling to survive in the domestic world.
This could be a routine destined to last through the ages for the Baze family, until an incident tears Russell’s life apart. Cut adrift from his community, he returns to find his brother mixed up in some dangerous activities with Willem Dafoe’s sly yet powerless hustler, John Petty, and Woody Harrelson’s menacing Harlan DeGroat. When Rodney goes missing, Russell and Red are the only two who care enough to enter this hidden world to try and find him.
Bale is reaching a stage now where it would be a shock to see him turn in a bad performance. His Russell is a good man motivated by bad things. In Bale’s hands, the mistakes he’s made, and the toll it has taken is well conceived. The descent into the underworld that DeGroat inhabits drives the film forward even if there are a few sloppy shortcuts along the way. The most egregious is a drawn out hunting sequence in which a broken Bale finds a stag in his sights only to realise he can no longer kill the innocent creature.
The spell that co-writer and second time director Scott Cooper manages to successfully weave is occasionally punctured by these cheap shots. An obligatory smashing of household furniture demonstrates helplessness and rage while DeGroat’s introduction, handsomely staged as it is, exists for no other reason than to swiftly paint him as a violent and terrifying thug.
Cooper is much more successful in his efforts to create a dark and claustrophobic cloud within which his characters go about their business. The Baze brothers are both trapped inside themselves. Russell can never undo the terrible thing he did, and has limited options with even the stability of the steel mill threatened. As a man used to looking out for others, he’s fast running out of people to help. Rodney is also trapped by the horrors he endured in Iraq, the debts he’s previously incurred in North Braddock, and his resistance to settling for a life at the mill.
The mood continues to grow, dragging more and more of the film in. Dickon Hinchliffe and Eddie Vedder’s powerful score deepens this, evoking numb comprehension at the cost actions are likely to have. The final third in particular feels like a train fast running out of track. Everyone’s inability to change events is keenly felt. There’s even a weary sense of resignation from people that know what’s coming. Forest Whitaker’s Sheriff has it etched on his face, Willem Dafoe’s small-time criminal voices reservations before the fact. With Bale holding the film together and Harrelson a spark of energetic evil, everyone in between finds space to build performances that enhance the impact further.
Aside from a propensity for shortcuts, not everything else works. A serious stutter occurs in the second act as slow and deliberate pacing just becomes slow. When it’s obvious what’s going to happen in the immediate future, drawing out the process only serves to let tension leak. This deflates the story to the extent that even the strong finale fails to get Out of the Furnace completely back to its feet.
These structural flaws hold Cooper’s sophomore effort down, but it still emerges as a thoughtful and unsettling drama. Despite the lack of anything new on display, enough quality has been thrown into the mix to leave a mark.