For Crazy Heart (2009), director Scott Cooper immersed himself the Americana of the country music scene, and with the aide of T Bone Burnett crafted a sincere and hopeful portrait of a man wrestling with his innate talent. Again inspired by his fascination with American culture, but more closely rooted to a specific place – Pennsylvania – Cooper’s Out of the Furnace (2013) is a deeply evocative, powerful drama exploring a culture of violence, both physical and economic. Christian Bale takes the central role as Russell Baze, a man we know to be good because he’s introduced working hard at the local steel mill, caring for his dying father and keeping his school-teacher girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana) happy.
As his troubled ex-forces brother Rodney, Casey Affleck brings a twitchy energy to the role, and both actors instantly convince as brothers united by the same origin having diverted to very different ways of living in the economically deprived town of Braddock. Despite his goodness, it’s nevertheless Russell’s incarceration for his involvement in a car crash that marks a pivotal moment in the lives of both men. Disillusioned by many tours of Iraq, Rodney’s affiliation with local businessman John Petty (Willem Defoe) as a street fighter for hire is allowed to run deeper during Russell’s absence. Emboldened by a desire to break free from debt, he demands a chance to fight up north for Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), ignoring Petty’s warning against crossing the region’s merciless mountain gang.
Violence is key in Out of the Furnace, and occurs in many forms; playfully as Russell gently chastises Rodney for gambling, regrettably, as Russell’s carelessness has catastrophic effects both on himself and the passengers of the car he hits; as a mode of assertion, as Russell is beaten during his stint in jail by the alpha male; and as a form of currency, as Rodney trades his war ravaged body for cash in an arena where brutality is celebrated for kicks. That Rodney would rather put himself at risk than work at the mill that he perceives to have been his father’s covert killer is presented by Cooper as the crucial signifier of his soldier’s life trauma – how to lead an ordinary life when you have witnessed extraordinary suffering. In this context, Harrelson’s DeGroat – introduced in the opening scene delivering a vicious attack to his date at a drive-in – is arguably tame in comparison to the atrocity Rodney has been witness to and his willingness to abandon self-preservation is shown as fearlessness that those around him cannot comprehend.
Solid, effectively subtle performances from a cast of Oscar nominated/winning actors are matched by the film’s truly striking cinematography. Using a palette of denim blue and ochre in Edward Hopper-esque painterly night scenes, cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi drenches the image in a recognisably melancholic small town American aesthetic. Ostensibly a film about the ubiquity of violence in ordinary lives, the bleakness of Cooper’s second feature may be what prevented it from having the impact of say, Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories (2007) or Mud (2013), or even Jeremy Saulnier’s recent Blue Ruin (2013), but for it’s astonishing imagery, committed performances and heartfelt approach to characterisation, Out of the Furnace is an achievement that deserves to be celebrated.
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