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Out of the Furnace

Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
You end up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Until you spend half your life just covering up

You know how “Born in the U.S.A.” is constantly misunderstood?  It’s a song about a disillusioned Vietnam vet who can’t find a job and ends up in prison, but it has such a singable, apparently patriotic chorus that even the Reagan reelection campaign in the ’80s used it to stir up patriotic fervor?  “Out of the Furnace” is a lot like that song. When I describe the plot to you, you’re going to think it’s a different move than what it really is.  But here goes anyway:

Christian Bale is a steel meel worker, like his father before him, somewhere in Pennsylvania.  His little brother, Casey Affleck, would rather die than work in the mills, and joined the military at an early age.  After four tours – two at least were stop-losses – he comes back from Iraq angry and scarred by the things he’s seen. He tries to channel that anger into bare-knuckle fighting, but keeps getting himself in trouble because he won’t take a fall when he’s supposed to.  He ends up crossing a psychotic Woody Harrelson, who puts a bullet in his brain and buries him in the woods.  The local PD is some mixture of apathetic and helpless when it comes to Harrelson, so it’s then up to Christian Bale to seek vengeance for his brother’s death.

That sounds pretty thrilling, doesn’t it?  The thing is, director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) works really hard to suck all of the thrill right out of “Furnace.”  This is not an action film.  This is not a myth of redemptive violence, or a chance for moviegoers to get a vicarious thrill out of watching a guy take justice into his own hands and kill all the people who have done him wrong. This is not that kind of movie.

Which is not to say it’s a bad film, not by a long shot.  “Out of the Furnace” is moody, atmospheric, brooding – one might even say slow. And Bale’s quest for vengeance doesn’t even get started until the final half hour of the film.  Cooper uses the rest of the film to set up this familiar movie trope as nothing more or less than the final, violent act of a man who has lost everything he loves, lost all hope, and doesn’t care whether he lives or dies anymore.  Yeah, this is that kind of movie.

Bale, in an excellent, subdued performance, plays a guy who really just wants to be a good, solid American, but is betrayed at every turn by everything he believes in. He believes there’s honor in an honest day’s work, but his dad is dying from sickness he contracted from a lifetime in the steel mills.  He believes in his country, but his little brother comes back from Iraq terrible damaged and with no good options for what to do next.  I’m not sure if he believes in God, Fate, or what, but whatever it is seems to have it out for him as well: after having a drink at a bar, he gets in a car accident on the way home, killing a kid, and goes to prison for it.  (The way it’s filmed, it sure looked to me like the accident wasn’t his fault and would’ve happened even if he’d been sober, but those are the breaks, I guess.) Oh, he also believes in the love of a good woman, but while he’s in prison, his good woman (Zoe Saldana) won’t visit him, and by the time he gets out, she’s carrying the police chief’s baby in her belly.  Frankly, if one more bad thing happened to this guy, this would stop being a moody drama and become a black comedy.

In light of all that, Bale’s decision to find the guy responsible for his brother’s death, is not heroic, it’s tragic. It’s the act of a man who has stopped believing in the American dream – that if he keeps his nose clean and his head down, is patient and persistent, good things will come his way and everything will work out in the end. He knows he’ll go to prison for it, but there’s no longer any reason to stay out of prison. The final moments of “Out of the Furnace” chronicle the final, forever defeat of a good man.

Christian Bale is great — isn’t he always great? And it’s fascinating to see him play a blue collar character so different than the one he played in “The Fighter.” But as good as he is, he’s upstaged in almost every scene by the quiet rage of Casey Affleck. The younger Affleck is a better actor than his brother, and it’s a crime we don’t see more of him on the big screen. And Woody Harrelson is genuinely terrifying. But really, this film belongs to the folks behind the camera. You’ve got to give the second unit a lot of credit; it’s filled with beautifully grungy establishing shots of the kind of world this characters live in — from smalltown steel mills to rundown Appalachian farmhouses.  (In fact, beautiful is the wrong word – this images are dirty and ugly, but on purpose and with intent.)  And this is a movie that’s deeply interested in this setting . I haven’t seen a place so powerfully evoked in film since “Gone Baby Gone”‘s depiction of Boston.

“Out of the Furnace” isn’t going to be for everybody, and the trailer’s kind of deceptive, so I can imagine some rather disgruntled moviegoers emerging from the theater after this one.  But taken for what it is, it’s a fine, admirable film, with lots going for it, and one I’m glad I took the time to see.

 

 

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