Monday, December 9, 2013

Movie review: Out of the Furnace

Last night, I took my 13 year-old son to see Out of the Furnace, the new Christian Bale movie about a steel-worker's hard luck life in western Pennsylvania, Braddock to be precise. Bale's character, one Russell Baze, is a mill worker whose father is bed-ridden and slowly dying (we're not told the exact nature of the sickness), whose mother died sometime in the past, and whose younger brother Rodney (played by Casey Affleck) is in the army and sees several tours of duty in Iraq.

Rodney has some problems and--later in the film--some serious demons. He's lost, unable to find a place to fit in, and turns to bare-knuckle fighting as a means of paying off his debts. In that regard, he does business with local bar owner and underworld-type figure John Petty (played by Willem Dafoe). Eventually, this brings him into contact with Curtis DeGroat (played by Woody Harrelson), a ruthless drug-dealer and all-around criminal who runs a backwoods region in the Ramapo Mountains (in New Jersey).

Russell seems a decent sort of guy, hardworking and responsible with a girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) who is looking to settle down and start a family. He helps his brother with the latter's debts whenever he can and helps care for his ailing father (with the help of his Uncle Red, played by Sam Sheppard). But he is--from the beginning of the film, which is actually around 2008--more or less trapped in a life with limits, in a town slowly dying. That's when he does something terrible, though not intentional, that results in his incarceration for--apparently--five years or so.

When he gets out of prison, he's lost his girl to another man (the Braddock chief of police, played by Forest Whitaker), his father has died, and his brother has gone from bad to worse, is full of rage and seems to be suffering from PTSD or the like. But he pushes forward, tries to reclaim his life in a town that is now almost dead. He returns to work at the steel mill, fully aware that its time is almost over, that it will be shutting down forever in the not-too-distant future.

It is all terribly heart-wrenching, terribly tragic, and terribly real. And things continue to go downhill from here. Rodney's problems escalate; he travels with Petty to fight for DeGroat in the Jersey backlands and neither return. The remainder of the film revolves around Russell's search for his brother and his quest for vengeance in this regard (with the help of Red). Things don't end well, to put it mildly.

It is a dark, violent film. But the violence is neither of the comic book kind or of the action-hero kind. It offers little in the way of humor or hope and is--in may ways--the perfect film for ruining one's holiday spirits. Critics are divided on its merits, as this compilation at Rotten Tomatoes indicates. But those panning the movie are, in my opinion, way off base. Out of the Furnace is an immersion kind of event. One needs to get lost in the film, take it all in and allow it to settle deeply within. It has rightly been compared to The Deer Hunter. Some scenes even appear to be cinematic homages to the 1978 Cimino classic. But it also evokes the same kind of reaction--in me, at least--as Paul Schrader's 1997 film Affliction, staring Nick Nolte.

These kinds of movies are draining experiences, if viewed properly, if allowed to fully permeate one's psyche and spirit. And they speak to the human condition, to the reality of life often being hard and full of pain. My son and I watched the film in a half-empty theater (despite this being the opening weekend for the film), and everyone was dead silent from beginning to end. There was no cross-talk, no outbursts of any kind. When the film ended, few rose immediately from their seats, almost everyone remained silent and seated as the credits rolled, slowly digesting what they had just taken in, coming to terms with Russell's life and the realities we sometimes forget about beyond out own gilded cages.

If Out of the Furnace had been made ten or more years ago, I have no doubt that critics would have been hailing it as a major achievement. But in today's world, it is fashionable to be haughty, to suppose a movie needs to rise in service to one's own needs. If The Deer Hunter were released today, I think the same critics panning Out of Furnace would be similarly unmoved by the former. And that's a real shame. Out of the Furnace is not an easy film to watch, but I'm glad I did. I'm particularly happy that my son watched it with me, appreciated it in full, and declared it to be a great movie, even as he looked distraught and had been quite horrified at various moments during the experience.

As to the "critical" aspects of the film, the acting was superb throughout. Casey Affleck was particularly brilliant and Woody Harrelson gave an Oscar-worthy performance in my opinion. The cinematography and direction were both quite good, as was the musical score (which included some Eddie Vedder).

I know this kind of movie is not for everyone. But for those that can stomach the pain, know that it is a brilliant piece of film-making. Pay no heed to the critics. I predict that down the road--five or ten years from now--Out of the Furnace will be more fairly judged, will endure as a classic. So go see it, if you can stand losing your holiday cheer for an evening.

Cheers, all.

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