Out Of The Furnace follows the story of two brothers living in the depressed and economically underdeveloped backwater town of Braddock. The eldest brother Russell works honestly at the local steel mill, whereas his younger sibling Rodney is a soldier who simply cannot adjust to civilian life. When Russell is unfortunately imprisoned and Rodney becomes involved in an extremely dangerous crime ring, the two brothers venture down some very dark roads that will ultimately lead them both to experience the seedy underbelly of America.
Its fair to say that Out Of The Furnace has some serious quality attached to it, being produced by Ridley Scott and Leonardo Dicaprio and directed by Scott Cooper. The film is already off to a great start behind the scenes and that’s before we even get started on the cast. The films central three performances are filled by Christian Bale (playing Russell Baze), Casey Affleck (his brother Rodney) and Woody Harrelson (Harlan DeGroat). Even the supporting performances that have lesser screen time are rounded out by a great cast with Zoe Saldana (Lena Taylor, Russells girlfriend) Willem Defoe (John Petty) Sam Shepard (Gerald Baze) and finally Forest Whitaker (Chief Wesley Barnes).
Out Of The Furnace is a very interesting film to me, this is without a doubt a performance film, the story here is minimal and the dialogue reflects that, the selling point here is the actors. As mentioned previous there are a lot of roles here that are filled by top of the range actors which is what I will cover first, as this is the meat of the film.
Christian Bale plays our central protagonist and is exceptional here. Bale is one of the all time greats in my opinion and his immersion into his roles is just fascinating to watch onscreen. Bale actually learnt how to operate a real furnace for the film and Cooper employed no doubles for his scenes in the steel mill. These scenes are so brief but emphasise Bales dedication to his craft, he also looks as if he has lost some weight for the role, with a slightly gaunt and haggered look to his face. This is great because it adds an extra layer to his character, this man is haunted and worn and Bale physical emotes as if he is constantly holding something back, just like the steel mill he is falling apart on the outside, but boiling inside. Bale can always give a watchable performance and because of Scott Coopers actor focused direction he really shines here, while his performance matches the films sad and depressing tone, Bale is given small moments of comedy and his dog impression is worth watching out for.
Casey Affleck plays opposite to Bale here and while the two don’t necessarily look like brothers, they certainly act that way. The two actors relationship is very believable and natural. Casey Affleck spent about three months preparing for his role and trained extremely hard to achieve the strange wiry frame of a fighter. Its strange seeing a fighter in a film appear this slim, usually a lot of actors bulk up to achieve this look, here it appears more natural and real, he looks desperate but also matches the men he fights who are also slim and in good shape. Affleck deals with the psychological torment his character is undergoing well, his scene with Bale when he asks “What has this country ever done for me?” is a great moment for the actor and a really intense scene. On a slight side note Taylor Kitsch was one of the actors who was going to play this role and actually has an extremely similar scene (along with playing a very similar character) in True Detective season 2.
Woody Harrelson is the antagonist and boy is he intimidating in this film. In Harrelson’s career he has always been drawn to these kind of roles (see Rampart, Natural Born Killers and Seven Psychopaths) and he absolutely devours them. He has such a stage presence on film and his face is just so watchable. His opening scene in the film at the Drive-in movie theatre sets his character up disgustingly perfectly. On yet another side note this role was actually initially shopped around to Viggo Mortensen who is my all time favourite actor. I think he too would’ve been outstanding in this.
Zoe Saldana is Russell’s girlfriend in the film and is also a teacher at the local school, while her character dips in and out of the film I really like her in this. Lena clearly loves Russell and her scene on the bridge with him is not only a withheld, subtle acting masterclass but also a heartbreaking realisation on futures that could’ve been.
Willem Dafoe joined the project in the later stages of development and similar to Harrelson he is one of these older actors who is infinitely watchable. His weathered face and gruff aged voice are so great and it just goes to show even the smallest of roles he can craft into a memorable character.
Forest Whitaker is the local police chief and also intervenes in Russell’s relationship with Lena. Whitaker is a very experienced actor and again, has a watchable quality too him. However I have found in the past he can REALLY ham up a scene and phone in his performances when he wants too, he also has given some bizzare performances in his time (anyone think that in Star Wars A Rogue One story?). In this film he does away with all of that and is just as committed as the other actors.
Finally we have Sam Shepard his performance is restrained and quiet playing the two brother’s uncle, he has quite minimal screen time but rounds out the cast nicely.
All of these finely tuned performances are because the actors themselves are very talented, but additionally they are under Scott Coopers direction. Cooper is without doubt an Actors Director, I think he is a reliable visual storyteller but his relationship with actors (he was one himself) is where he excels. He teases out that extra umph with actors that makes their performances stellar and this is evident in his other two films Black Mass and Crazy Heart. He plays the story straight and creates a palpable atmosphere in the film, this is a town that is slowly dying, just like its characters. Cooper also adds a very minimal underlying political edge to the film. News of Barack Obamas forthcoming presidency (The film is set in 2008) plays on the television and the news that the Steel Mill is slowly being shut down because of the cheaper materials that can be imported from China. It isn’t a huge part to the film, more of a running vein, the film that it draws close comparisons to in this respect is Killing Them Softly the very under seen Brad Pitt fronted film. Coopers work with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi also adds some extremely photographic and beautifully decrepit shots of the nearly forgotten town, he also has a very haunting shot of Bale as he awakes from crashing his car.
The score to the film is very soft and subtle, its very good and Dickon Hinchliffe helps set a simple town mood without being too sentimental. Interestingly Eddie Vedder had written and produced some songs for the film however Scott Cooper decided against using them, saying they were very powerful and would detract from the film.
Brad Ingelsby is the films writer and actually has a very bare bones script here, it isn’t terrible nor is it great, while it gives the main actors a few standout scenes it needs to be taken up a few gears to reach something greater. Its fortunate that the film employs the direction and acting to do a lot of the heavy lifting here.
Out Of The Furnace is a very well acted film and is very watchable because of it, however it doesn’t amount to much more than that. There isn’t any really interesting action sequences or truly thrilling moments, it is a quiet, well executed piece of cinema that should be watched by cinemagoers who can just be absorbed in great acting. The film stands at 1 hour 50 minutes and is about the right length, it certainly doesn’t need to be any longer but communicates what it needs to with the scenes that are there.
I have the limited edition steelbook of this film which has a lovely matte colour to it, with the image of Bale on the front holding his rifle is quite arresting. This steelbook contains the same extras as the blu-ray however my extras do not work on my copy! The extras play but with no sound! I was left with a soundless Scott Cooper discussing his directing style, which is not helpful. The film itself works fine though and you can grab the steelbook here (I picked it up in the sale for £5.99, so you could hedge your bets and wait for that):