Saturday, December 7, 2013

Out of The Furnace

OUT OF THE FURNACE: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard, Forrest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, directed by Scott Cooper (116 min.)

I have no issue with the existence or the use of violence in the movies.  Violence can be an effective tool in storytelling, and if done properly it can be vital.  Some violence is told with style, some with substance; some films use violence as entertainment, others use it to tell an important part of the story.  12 Years a Slave is one of the most intensely violent films I have ever seen, but it all has a reason.  One of my personal favorites, True Romance, has over the top moments of brutality, but the style and wit and energy of the picture play off the bloodshed perfectly.  I had a real issue with the brutality in Out of The Furnace, mostly because it existed for no real reason at times.  Sure, this is a bleak tale with despicable characters and dire situations, but the brutality is incessant and, ultimately, distracting.

This little rant has less to do with violence in general and more to do with my disappointment in the film, which is loaded with excellent performances.  It's too bad this impressive cast who function in synch with one another so well didn't have a better film in which to operate.  The story centers around Russell Baze (Christian Bale) and his younger brother, Iraqi War veteran Rodney (Casey Affleck), two sons and products of a Pennsylvania steel town.  As an allegory for the last five years in America, this town is crumbling under the weight of an economic meltdown, outsourcing to China, poverty and crime.  Russell is the family patriarch, always watching out for young, careless Rodney, and taking care of his dying father.  After an innocent mistake sends him to jail for a few years, his life outside shifts and unravels, and when he returns he has to fight even harder to keep his head above water.

Rodney is struggling to find a job after being discharged from the Army.  He suffers from PTSD, and rejects steady work at the steel mill.  Instead, he takes part in some lowest-of-the-low-rent bare knuckle boxing matches, led by a small town hustler named Petty (a greasy Willem Dafoe).  Even though Rodney is supposed to routinely take dives in these fights, he can't help himself and keeps winning.  So why does he have to keep throwing these things if he's so good?  Beats me.  Regardless, Rodney pushes Petty into taking him up to the hills of New Jersey to fight against one of Harlan DeGroat's fighters.  DeGroat is played by Woody Harrelson, and is one of the most memorable, most psychotic villains in recent memory.  We meet Harlan at the outset of the film as he shoves a hot dog down his girlfriend's throat and beats a man senseless at a drive-in movie.  Yeah, he's just that kind of guy, a drug dealer and a scumbag murderer.

Things go south when Rodney and Petty are in New Jersey, and it is up to Russell to find out what happened to his brother.  The local police (or police MAN, as we only ever see one) is Chief Wesley, played by Forest Whitaker, and he has no jurisdiction over Harlan and his inbred thugs.  Nobody has control of them because they live by their own rules.  This drives Russell and his Uncle Red (the great Sam Shepard) into action.  The third act unfolds into a muddled and aimless manhunt.  Russell and Red visit the home of a drug dealer in an uneven and unbelievable scene, then things bounce back and forth between Pennsylvania and New Jersey until we reach the predictable end.  Much of the film is predictable; we know what is going to happen the entire time, we know when it is going to happen, so the journey loses a little tension with each passing scene.

And that violence.  Some moments are fine, like the bare knuckle brawls and a moment of gun violence here and there.  But the brutality in between grows tiresome.  This is a bleak film, shot in ambers and browns and grays, and a great sadness leaks from these characters in every scene.  Sometimes, the violence feels necessary to accentuate the bleak nature of these people, but many times it seems gratuitous.  I remember late in the film, when one character hands out a beating to another character who didn't really need it or ask for it, I could feel my shoulders slump and my attention wane until the assault was over.  And if that wasn't enough, the murder on the back end of the scene doesn't fit or make sense.  At least not to me.

I feel like the film and director Scott Cooper do a disservice to the actors in these roles.  One would be hard pressed to assemble a more impressive cast, and each player is immersed in their character.  Bale is the perfect patriarch, the quiet leader, and he and Affleck have wonderful sibling chemistry.  The most effective character in the film has to be Harrelson's Harlan, who made me nervous every time he appeared.  Zoe Saldana, who plays Russell's girlfriend early in the picture, is there just for a plot device, but the other satellite performances are spot on.  Sam Shepard is wonderful in absolutely everything he does, and that is the case here.  There is something about Shepard that, when he appears, he sets the entire framework of a movie at ease.  Out of The Furnace has absolutely stellar performances all around, but the predictability of the plot undercuts the fine work.  And the violence is just too much, too unnecessary for me.