MRR Review: "Out of the Furnace"

Photo Credit: Relativity Media

MRR Review: "Out of the Furnace"

Rating: R (strong violence, language, and drug content)
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 6, 2013
Directed by: Scott Cooper
Genre: Crime/Drama/Thriller

The year is 2008, and the tiny Pennsylvania town of Braddock has definitely seen some better days. It used to be a booming steel mill town, but now, very few people have jobs at the mill. One of the lucky ones is Russell (Christian Bale), who initially seems to have his stuff together and wants to start a family with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana). His brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), took the opposite path, joining the military to get away from Braddock and its Rust Belt hopelessness.

Lives can change in an instant, and Russell's changes in a way that is irreparable after a night of heavy drinking. He gets into a car accident and goes to jail for involuntary manslaughter just as Rodney is being told by the Army that he is being sent on yet another tour of Iraq, which the mentally tortured man clearly doesn't need. As Russell begins to serve his prison sentence, Lena breaks up with him and takes up with a local law enforcement officer named Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). Suddenly, he went from occasionally getting his ne'er do well brother out of occasional scrapes to being the one in a major scrape instead.

Around the time that Rodney is returning from his most recent tour of Iraq, Russell is released from jail. As they catch up and try to help heal each other's wounds, the disappointment about where each of their respective lives has ended up is palpable. It doesn't help that Rodney has started fighting in bare-knuckle fights for cash, putting him directly in the crosshairs of small-time local gambler John Petty (Willem Dafoe) and the much more dangerous and unhinged Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Rodney doesn't seem to care if he takes a beating, because at least he is feeling something. Russell doesn't like it though, and now that he doesn't have Lena or much of a future, he might just have to take up for his little brother, even if it puts him in danger.

Affleck has spent much of his career in the shadow of his brother Ben, who won an Oscar for his first screenplay, "Good Will Hunting," which starred both brothers. That's not to say that he is not a good actor—he just hasn't gotten as much recognition for his roles. In "Out of the Furnace," he takes a supporting role opposite Bale and shows that he is every bit the actor his brother is. He is particularly sharp in the scenes where he is trying desperately to control his posttraumatic stress disorder, which haunts him after four straight tours in Iraq. His character joined the Army to get out of his desolate hometown, but he may have been better off sticking around. His scenes with Bale in particular, when they renew their brotherly bonds and try to help each other out, are particularly affecting. Sure, Bale is the lead in the film, but Affleck more than holds his own and may have finally stepped outside of Ben's considerable shadow after this performance.

Part of the reason that cowriter/director Scott Cooper can draw out such fantastic performances from his cast is that they are all fine actors. Another reason is that Cooper himself used to be an actor before he went behind the camera. A director who has been in the actors' shoes can usually make them feel comfortable enough to go for broke with their roles, and that seems to be the case with "Out of the Furnace." He is a true actor's director and can turn really likable stars like Harrelson into outright monsters. In fact, Harrelson turns in one of the finest and scariest performances of his career, one that audience members might remember for a very long time. The precredits scene in particular is chilling as Harrelson's character beats his girlfriend and anyone else who wants to be a hero and come and save her.

The entire movie was shot in 35 mm Technicolor film, which is becoming a rare occurrence as digital film becomes cheaper to use and easier to process in postproduction. Using this method allowed Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi to really capture just how gray and bleak things are in Braddock. The mill in the background is constantly pushing ash into the air, which allows the film to have a certain patina, as though the soot is ingrained into everything in town, including the residents. It's a masterstroke that really elevates the script and makes this film every bit as much a visual stunner as it is an emotional one.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5