“Let me make this right”
I think Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace has been given a bad rap by the critical world. It’s slow, laborious, and perhaps not possessed with the freshest of plots, but there is still a palpable power driving it forward courtesy of fantastic performances and a starkly authentic depiction of a forsaken region not unlike Winter’s Bone’s Ozarks. Whether it’s the gradual shutdown of a blue-collar Braddock, PA way beyond its prime in today’s America or the backwoods justice of a lawless portion of New Jersey, Cooper captures the look, feel, and futility of those trapped within. Life can’t always be some karmic balance of good deeds equaling success and happiness because bad luck and bleak fate don’t discriminate. They’ll take away everything you’ve ever loved in the blink of an eye regardless of who you are.
The film’s genesis is an intriguing one as it was originally a script entitled The Low Dweller by Brad Ingelsby with Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio signed on to direct and star in respectively. Given the opportunity to do with it what he would, Cooper decided to rework the plot and marry it to his desire to tell a human story against the backdrop of the aforementioned Braddock’s decline thanks to an article he read while also sprinkling in details from his own life and loss. Whether or not they meshed together perfectly could be the culprit for why some scenes appear out-of-place and for the contrivances necessary to pit hero (Christian Bale’s Russell Baze) against villain (Woody Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat) by the conclusion, but the emotional impact drawn from this merging cannot be denied.
If I were to blame something for its lackluster reception, I’d point to a trailer that makes it out to be much leaner and meaner than reality proves. I thought it was going to start with Bale’s Russell exiting jail for whatever his hardened criminal did this time with the bad temper and history of bloodlust needed to avenge a brother in Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck) after mixing with DeGroat’s bare-knuckle boxing scum. Instead we learn how the eldest Baze is a hardworking, quiet man in love (with Zoe Saldana’s Lena) who still visits his dying father before a double shift at the mill and pays Rodney’s debts without a need for thanks. A levelheaded guy with a bright future ahead, it’s his good nature to accept one last drink before driving home that changes everything.
What I like about how Cooper handles this transition is that he never tries to beat us over the head with superfluous information his calculated jump cuts render moot. It’s a heartbreaking sequence of events traveling from his reluctantly taking bookie-with-a-heart-of-gold John Petty’s (Willem Dafoe) glass to the subsequent fatal car accident that in my mind wasn’t his fault to watching as he welds piping while wearing a Department of Corrections jumpsuit—a detail better at telling us what a lengthy courtroom scene would have for filmmakers with less confidence in their audience. This is a good man repenting for one more unfortunate tragedy in a life full of them while his brother is stop-lossed back to Iraq for a fourth tour. Russell had done everything right and his reward upon release was abject loneliness and pain.
If you think that’s all too heavy-handed, well Out of the Furnace might not be for you because it gets worse quick. Not only does Russell’s father die while he’s inside, but Lena leaves him for Chief of Police Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker), and Rodney returns home with a case of PTSD exacerbating his temper and making it so normal life can never feel as important as the army had. One mistake derailed everything Russell had built so that even his return to the long hours at the steel plant proves short-lived with rumors swirling of its eminent shutdown. But while Cooper may go over-the-top in his complete dismantling of this man, it’s all a necessary evil to push him to the brink of morality into the life he had always avoided—one of violence and revenge.
Bale is a powerhouse, instilling his character with a complexity forever etched on his brow. Unafraid to stand up for himself or those he cares for, he also breaks down into tears when the reality of what he’s lost is explained in the form of celebratory news he’d hoped would one day be his own. We watch him wrestle inner demons and the anger and hatred he so desperately kept in check for too long after realizing what little it did him. And we see the weathered faces of the others, tired of being on the wrong end of God’s good will once happiness becomes synonymous with the excruciating pain of its loss that perpetually follows. It’s in Saldana’s sorrow, Affleck’s torture, and Uncle Red’s (Sam Shepard) fatigue—a need for Pearl Jam’s prominently featured “Release”.
So while the surface says it’s a revenge flick wherein Bale’s Russell has had enough and is ready to repay the vile DeGroat (Harrelson is pure redneck in a memorable turn) for what he did to his brother, Cooper has actually crafted a nuanced character study of a defeated man treading water at the end of his rope. The myriad quiet moments of introspection and the watching of gears spinning beneath his contemplative eyes weighing the consequences between body and soul are the film’s true ambition. It’s not “Will he hunt down DeGroat?” or “Should he?” It’s about a human being’s capacity to become something he/she never thought possible and what drives them to literally have no other choice. Our self-imposed prisons of guilt and regret are oftentimes much scarier than anything erected by the state.
 (Left to right.) Stars Casey Affleck and Christian Bale in Relativity Media’s Out of the Furnace. Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes © 2012 Relativity Media.
 (Left to right.) Woody Harrelson and Willem Dafoe star in Relativity Media’s Out of the Furnace. Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes © 2012 Relativity Media.
 (Left to right.) Forest Whitaker, Christian Bale and Sam Shepard star in Relativity Media’s Out of the Furnace. Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes © 2012 Relativity Media.