As I took my seat in the smallest screen at a major multiplex cinema for the opening night of Out of the Furnace something felt wrong. Surely a film with no fewer than four Academy Award nominees and two Academy Award winners heading the cast should be playing to more than the seventeen people sparsely scattered in between the forty or so other empty seats in the screen? I felt like I was about to be treated to some rare art house film and not the Christian Bale-helmed blockbuster I’d been anticipating.
Out of the Furnace follows steel mill worker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) and an ensemble of absorbing characters through a series of momentous events in a small town in the Rust Belt of America.
Russell’s younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), recently back from a harrowing tour of Iraq, is hell bent on self destruction and becomes involved in local bare knuckle boxing fights through local bar owner-come loan shark John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Rodney seems to handle himself well, and Petty has a discernible soft spot for him, but Rodney’s stubborn insistence to make more money in bigger fights leads him into contact with the dangerous and unpredictable Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). When his involvement in one of DeGroat’s rigged fights leads to Rodney’s disappearance, both local police officer Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker) and Russell – at odds with each other over Russell’s former, and Wesley’s current girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) – each set out to investigate and pursue DeGroat to bring him to justice.
The plot sounds convoluted, visual metaphors in the film aren’t particularly hidden, and on the surface the narrative seems like a lazy amalgamation of Snatch and No Country for Old Men. Had the direction not been so deftly handled, if the acting hadn’t been consistently sublime and the script so effortlessly flawless, these generalisations might be valid. As it stands, Out of the Furnace is an unexpectedly tender and powerful film, never predictable and always believable. Sweeping helicopter shots are shrewdly interspersed with a prevalent hand held aesthetic giving the visuals a cinematic yet personal feel, complementing the film’s intimate and engaging plot.
As expected, there isn’t a poor acting turn in the film, and its a wonder that Scott Coopers writing and directing – which previously brought Jeff Bridges an Academy Award for his role in Cooper’s debut Crazy Heart – hasn’t brought any of his actors nominations at this season’s award ceremonies. Most notably, Bale’s performance in Out of the Furnace is impressively subtle and far more impacting than his turn in the bigger budgeted, and over appreciated, American Hustle. Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Woody Harrelson and Willem Dafoe also put in stellar performances, reminding us that they are all among the best Hollywood has to offer.
Affleck in particular, as good here as he was opposite Brad Pitt as the unnerving Robert Ford back in 2007, is frustratingly given roles that demonstrate his ability only too infrequently, and as such is a delight to see in full flight here as the unhinged Rodney.
Out of the Furnace is an accomplished work, but its odd pairing of A-list cast and comparatively absent marketing campaign, not to mention its action-packed trailer which misrepresents it as being Hollywood tripe, mean it might fail to find either a mainstream or art house audience. It is deserved of considerable attention for its artistic merits, storytelling prowess, and moving performances.
Perhaps someone at the multiplex had put considerable thought into which screen to show the film after all. Out of the Furnace certainly turned out to be the rare treat the limited seating suggested, and deserves to be the next film you decide to see at the cinema this month.
Out of the Furnace (2013), directed by Scott Cooper, is released in UK cinemas by Lionsgate, Certificate 15.