Movie Mayhem – Out of the Furnace

Christian Bale is a rare-breed; an actor who not only makes you believe in a character so much that you forget that he’s an actor, but a chameleon at that, transforming himself into each and every character in a way that you hardly ever recognize him. There are very few actors who can pull this off, but when they do, they are able to lift the performances of every actor around them as well, helping to bring something out in them that elevates their own style. This level of performance art carries Bale’s new film, Out of the Furnace, hiding the mediocre story under a character-driven asperity.

Bale and Casey Affleck play Russell and Rodney Baze, respectively; brothers living normal, regular-Joe lives in Braddock, Pennsylvania, where the steel industry is prevalent (but dying). Russell is happy with what he has, even if it’s hardly anything at all, while Rodney continues to look for a fast way to get rich and get out of the blue-collar lifestyle that he’s been trapped in by the generations of hard-working men. After a fatal car accident sends Russell to prison and Rodney heads off to fight in Iraq, the lives of both men are torn apart and will never be the same again.

It’s hard to say how much time actually passes throughout the movie, as there are no actual dates set (with the exception of a few clues here and there), but what I gather is it’s set between 2007 and the present, with the majority taking place in the hear and now. Regardless of this, it is painstakingly clear that the passage of time has put a strain on the relationship between these two brothers, shown in the quiet simplicity of the acting and in the subtlety that each of the boys deliver.

For Affleck, this is probably one of the best performances that I’ve ever seen from him. He exerts a tough, proud exterior, even as he fights his own inner demons (not to mention, the drug-dealing, fight-club promoter played with ominous vigor by Woody Harrelson—who’s a long way from his Cheers roots here) for which he can’t rectify because it would make him appear far more weak than he perceives himself to be. From what he had to experience in the war, to the struggle of wanting more out of life, he can’t seem to balance who he is with what he feels others believe him to be. In contrast, Harrelson brings a redneck quality to the role of Harlan DeGroat that tears up the screen with a ferocity that never quite rises above that very first scene of the film.

The reason for that may be because it’s not so much in the dialogue or the action that resonates in your skin like a festering virus, but in the silences of what isn’t being said; the calmness is what ultimately makes the film so hard to watch, and at the same time, so captivating. Each small nuance in the character’s eyes, or in the softness of their breath, makes you feel for their situation and get to know them in a way that you otherwise might not in any other type of blockbuster shoot-em up.

But even with these performances (and the realistic nature of the writing, direction and cinematography), there is still something missing from the film as a whole, which, like the performances, is extremely raw in how it conveys the events that play out among this weary family. Even as we watch these two men struggle with the loss of their father, friends and loved ones, we’re never given the chance to feel for these people as much as the central characters themselves do.

Instead of becoming Russell, or even Rodney, to the point that we feel every heartbeat and every chord of pain (as director Scott Cooper, I’m sure, was trying to elicit), I was set to wander just out of reach of them, wanting to absorb them, but unable to because of the shield that had been held up against them. We hardly get to know any of the minor characters, so when they are lost, we don’t quite understand the pure connection that the characters so deeply convey. The reasons are there, and the heart is there, but the string connecting them is missing.

The one moment I can say truly broke that barrier is when Russell returns to the scene of his accident with a bouquet of flowers and simply rests his hand on the edge of the road, fighting to stay in control and keep from breaking down. If there were more scenes like this, where that rawness was allowed to flourish, the overall film would have been devastatingly heartbreaking.

As it is, even the greatest performances can’t quite pull this up to best film of the year status, simply because the story itself is weaker than it should have been, and in a lot off ways, anti-climactic. By the time the end nears, there are no real surprises left, each step having been told to us in point-by-point fashion instead of leading us through the mystery of the brothers’ lives. It chooses to give us all information up front, relying too heavily on us wanting to continue to follow the lives of Russell and Rodney even after there’s really no point to follow them any longer.

The goal Scott Cooper may have been going for was in how Russell can deal with so much devastation in his life, and how he learns to cope with it all (and in the end, what he would be wiling to do for family). If that’s the case, he does succeed (as does Bale) on this level of pure organic life. But that alone can’t carry the film, and thus causes it to lose traction before it’s time is up.

My Grade: B+

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Next week, new movies include The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.

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