Title: Out of the Furnace
Reviewed for Shockya by Harvey Karten. Data-based on RottenTomatoes.com
Director: Scott Cooper
Screenwriter: Brad Ingelsby, Scott Cooper
Cast: Christian Bale, Zöe Saldana, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 11/21/13
Opens: December 6, 2013
The middle class in America may be doing fairly well these days compared to its equivalents in the rest of the developed world, but we have a problem that’s sad to report. That is the helter-skelter decline of the manufacturing industries as the big guys are outsourcing to China, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, and other low-cost producers. “Out of the Furnace,” which opens in 2008, focuses on a Pennsylvania steel mill, which might make some in the audience wonder if this is an anachronism—that there is even one such company left to knock out domestic steel. What may happen to the mill a few years down the road is anyone’s guess, but Scott Cooper, in a movie he co-wrote with Ingelsby, features one young man who, unlike his brother, does not want to work in such a place. “Look at what the mill did to our father,” exclaims Rodney Baze Jr. (Casey Affleck) to his older brother Russell Baze (Christian Bale), noting that their dad is dying as a result of the pollutants that pour out of the North Braddock, PA mill. So far as Rodney is concerned, he’d rather be signing for a fourth stint in Iraq notwithstanding that he saw an infant with his head cut off and rows of amputated feet lying in the road.
If all this misery suggests that some Americans have given up their right to pursue happiness as our founding fathers would prefer, so be it. There’s even more trouble brewing for the Baze family: director Cooper underscores the physical violence from the opening scene at a drive-in movie (yep, they still have those in Pennsylvania), where Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), thinking that his date (Dendrie Taylor) is laughing at him, grabs her hot dog, tosses the bun, and tries to shove the entire sausage down her throat. When a neighboring customer makes it his business to intervene, he gets flattened.
If Woody Harrelson, so fragile and naïve during his role as bartender Woody Boyd in TV’s “Cheers,” is a one-dimensional bad guy, Cooper and Ingelsby would not have it any other way. Harrelson’s performance as Curtis DeGroat is without a single redeeming feature. He is a man who bets in the low-life fight clubs featuring contestants using bare fists and pummeling one another even when they’re down. He is also the baddest baddie that the movie studios have produced this year. “I have a problem with everyone,” notes DeGroat. At least he’s aware of his violent temper and his inability to avoid killing people who do not cough up money for his crystal meth habit.
“Out of the Furnace” is a fiercely critical look at the culture of the Rust Belt, in this case centered on the Carrie Furnace in Braddock PA where the picture is set. If Harrelson is the chief cynic and scuzz of the town, Casey Affleck’s Rodney is the naïf—who gets himself into serious trouble by borrowing money to bet on the ponies and is forced to become a victim in the town’s fight club to make money lest he wind up on a slab. Yet his chief creditor, bookie John Petty (Willem Dafoe), is a decent man who tries to talk Rodney out of putting his body on the line. The principal person in this exceptional ensemble cast, Russell Baze, is a generally good guy who works steadily in the mill, takes care of his sick dad, and even in one instance gets a deer within his telescopic sights and refrains from shooting. Yet because he accidentally kills a person while drunk driving and serves time in jail, he ranks among the sad cases for human beings that Cooper unfolds for us in this dismal place, a world away from the neighborhoods that most of us know.
This is a macho pic, the un-chick flick, with Lena Warren (Zöe Saldana) as the only strong female, in the role of Russell’s significant other who leaves her lover while he is in jail and teams up with the town’s police chief, Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). On the whole, “Out of the Furnace” puts on display a terrific ensemble of performers, an entry into the awards film category of 2013– a powerful melodrama but one which lacks the depth and nuances of fare like “The Deer Hunter.”
Rated R. 116 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – C+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B