AFI 2013 Review: Out of the Furnace
Out of the Furnace is a serious movie about serious things. The filmmakers had some themes they wanted to address, and these are themes worth exploring artistically, let alone just to have some discussion about difficult topics like Iraq war veterans. Writer/director Scott Cooper handles a lot of familiar elements in ways that don’t go exactly where you’d expect based on every other movie, so I respect that. It’s ultimately not as focused as Cooper’s last movie, Crazy Heart, and therefore less poignant which is a shame given the bigger topics he’s tackling.
In 2008, Rodney Baze, Jr. gets into some gambling debt with the local mobster John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Rodney’s brother Russell (Christian Bale) tries to resolve the debt for him but gets into a drunk driving accident and goes to prison for a bit. Rodney makes money in Petty’s underground fights but he’s not so good at taking the dives. When Russell gets out, he tries to help Rodney go straight with a job at the local mill. Rodney can’t quite do a 9 to 5 since he’s been in the war, but he asks Petty to set up one big fight for a dangerous drug dealer (Woody Harrelson) so he can get out.
We have a lot of familiar storylines going on here: One last score, family gets you in trouble, why weren’t you there to protect him, and it shouldn’t be a spoiler to reveal that there is some revenge involved at some point. The greatest asset of Out of the Furnace is that it doesn’t indulge the same old story beats. The last big fight is out of Rodney’s league, and it hints at a few of the “one last fight” clichés before doing something different, thankfully.
It’s still a weird character for Rodney though. If he wants to make easy money so bad, why does he keep screwing up the rigged fights? So he wants easy money and the pride of victory too? I suppose that’s a real character flaw and that’s what makes him frustrating to viewers and Rodney’s own family. He’s not as out there as Edward Norton in Rounders or Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It where it’s like, come on, you’re just asking for trouble. Rodney makes mistakes, but not fatal mistakes, although staying away from Harrelson’s character would have been better.
The Iraq issues are not heavy handed at all. Rodney has one outburst about the horrors he saw there, and a few passing asides are made to remind us both he and Russell have a war history, but that’s just what makes them the characters they are. Two people with similar experiences acclimate in different ways.
The story balances a lot of threads, mimicking real life where more than one thing happens in a person’s experience. There’s the accident, the woman Bale left behind, the fights, the gangsters and more. I was open to that, but by the end it felt like these elements didn’t get us anywhere different than the more traditional versions of these stories would.
When he introduced the film, Cooper spoke about wanting to make a western, and it would have been clear even if he hadn’t said anything. The score is full of twangy western themes which are at best on the nose, and more often a forced cliché. In the climax, the camera swivels around Bale before the resolution plays out and that is not the same as buildup. This is so not Sergio Leone. It’s just stretching things out. I appreciate the deliberate resolution, not rushing things, but it ultimately deprives us of any thrill. That may have been intentional too, because we shouldn’t enjoy this kind of violence, but ultimately we’re just lingering, waiting for the movie to get on with it.
There’s also some really misguided intercutting of presumably parallel scenes, that I don’t think are parallel at all. Rodney fighting is intercut with Russell skinning a deer. It’s two acts of bodily violence, but I don’t see any more than a superficial connection. One is trying to eat, the other is trying to work, and so what? Hunting happens and fighting happens. A worse instance crosscuts footage of a drug user shooting up with smelting at the mill. Those are two things that get melted down, but so what? Coincidental properties are not artistic parallels.
I suppose the biggest fault of Out of the Furnace is that I can see everything it’s doing clearly enough to be a little removed from the story. It’s still well acted (Harrelson is particularly scary) and sensitive to some poignant issues, but where Crazy Heart could spend the whole movie focused on one character’s downfall, Out of the Furnace is more like a highlight reel.