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Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnace

What She said:

She

Sometimes I hear really nice things about Western Pennsylvania.  Like, “Pittsburgh is a great city for twenty-somethings and has great restaurants.”  And then I see movies like Out of the Furnace that make me want to avoid anything west of Harrisburg by any means possible.  The film successfully introduces the viewer to a dark, depressed town, overrun by crime, with a failing economy, and with very little hope for the future.  Sure, I grew to care about the characters, but what I was most concerned about after watching Out of the Furnace was ensuring that I never find myself living in a town like that one.

Let me tell you a little bit about the plot of this film.  We are introduced to Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a somewhat hard-looking, but also hard working guy who is employed at a steel mill in North Braddock, Pennsylvania.  He quietly and dependably toils away each day, following in the footsteps of his father, who also worked the mill but is now dying from an unspecified terminal disease, presumably cancer.  With his father’s failing health, and talk of the steel mill closing down, Russell doesn’t exactly have much good going for him.  However, he does have a beautiful and loving girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana).  Russell also has a younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), who is in the service and between tours overseas.  Rodney is not specifically identified as having PTSD, but he has some issues, and finds himself caught up in some bad stuff in between his deployments.  Specifically, he borrows money from a local and somewhat small-time crime boss, John Petty (Willem Dafoe), to bet on a losing race horse.  Russell learns of this and pays at least some of Rodney’s debts.

Unfortunately, Russell’s life is turned upside down when he drives drunk, hits a car, and kills its occupants.  Honestly, the crash wasn’t really his fault, but who’s to say that it could not have been prevented had he been sober.  He is convicted of vehicular manslaughter and forced to spend an extended period of time behind bars.  Without Russell around to keep things in order, everything else seems to fall apart.  Rodney finishes his service time and becomes more and more caught up in bad stuff.  He actually starts participating in street fights, and taking drives, as a way to repay his debts to Petty and make a little money.  But he’s not pulling in the money the way that he should be.  Russell’s father has also passed away, which was inevitable.  And the biggest blow for Russell is that his girlfriend has left him and moved on with police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker).

Out of the Furnace

On the upside, Russell is able to regain employment back at the steel mill, but let’s face it, his life sucks.  And brother Rodney is about to get himself in even more trouble.  Not satisfied with his meager earnings, Rodney convinces Petty to hook him up with some bigger fights out in the hills of New Jersey overseen by super crazy drug dealer Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).  It is a way for Rodney to make more money, but Petty is in deep with Harlan, and so the psycho never really intends to play fair.  Instead, he kills Petty, and takes Rodney back in the woods, kills him, and buries his body.  When Russell learns of Rodney’s disappearance, and Harlan’s involvement, he sets out to find his brother and get revenge.

This film is really about decent people who find themselves in bad situations.  Russell is certainly not a bad guy at all.  He’s very steady and dependable.  However, he makes some poor decisions and that’s what gets him in trouble.  His brother Rodney also seems to have a good heart, but he’s foolish, immature, and not capable of readjusting to post-war life among normal society.  Even Petty, while a loan shark and small-time criminal, doesn’t seem like a horrible person.  He actually seems to genuinely care for Rodney.  But they’re all just really dumb people who cannot keep their heads down and their noses straight.

Out of the Furnace is a character study of all these folks.  Specifically, we get to see what a guy like Russell will do when he really doesn’t have much left in his life.  Girlfriend gone, criminal record, job in peril, father and brother both dead—what does he do next?  He wants to avenge Rodney’s murder, but how far is he willing to go?  I think if poor Russell lived in a more upbeat town with a little more positive vibe going on, he would not find himself in such a situation.  He’d feel like he has a little more to aspire toward.  But it is what it is.

Out of the Furnace

While the film is certainly interesting, Out of the Furnace does suffer from some uneven writing.  The storyline in my description may sound a little complex, but that’s just because I was very specific when I laid it out.  It doesn’t come across that way in the film.  The plot is actually somewhat generic.  Deeper elements are hinted at—Rodney’s PTSD, severe economic depression, rampant drug use, and organized crime—but none of these are ever really fully explored to a level that leaves a true impact with the viewer.  Instead, we just get to see a series of events unfold.

On the upside, every actor in this film puts in their finest performance.  Bale gives Russell a sense of urgency, but also shows how emotionally taxed he is.  Dafoe is wide-eyed and somewhat child-like as Petty, as he realizes that he’s gotten himself in over his head.  Harrelson is as entertaining as ever—ruthless, psychotic, and yet someone simple to the point of being comical.  The only actor I didn’t love—and I always feel this way about him—was Casey Affleck.  Something about his delivery always seems to feel forced to me, and he feels the same in nearly every character that he plays. 

We know that the setting of this film is an economically depressed town going through hard times, and the director and cinematographer work hard to bring that through on screen.  The film is largely void of color—no lush yards of green or flowered gardens are present in North Braddock.  It seems like the place is perpetually stuck in early March.  Even when the setting shifts to New Jersey, things are kept very gray.  It’s a world that doesn’t have much going for it, and one that I’m not particularly interested in becoming a part of.  In that sense, the film is effective.

Overall, Out of the Furnace is an interesting character study, but it doesn’t offer a level of depth that is truly rewarding.  The acting is good, but the material is not solid enough to make it really memorable.

Thumbs half up.

 

What He said:

He

North Braddock, PA is a rough place. It’s a working class town. There was a time where that simply meant it was a place where people work hard and lived honestly. In today’s day and age, it’s code for a struggling community. There are still people good people there, Christian Bale’s character is a good example, but as time went on and business failed, poverty and crime rose, and people turned to questionable activities.

Out of the Furnace

Russell and Rodney Baze are brothers, but very different people Russell (Christian Bale) is an honest, hard-working, decent guy. He’s got a job at the mill, a lady friend, and looks after his sickly father with the help of his uncle. Rodney (Casey Affleck) is the more troubled brother. He appears to have no job, which in of itself is a problem, but the only thing worse is having no job and having debt. Rodney likes to gamble and he’s built up some debt with a local loan shark named John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Russell, being the standup guy he is, gives Petty some money and offers to pay off the rest of when he gets paid again.

Russell has an accident. I won’t say too much about it, because I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, but I will say that he does some time in prison for it. His brother visits him regularly, but his girlfriend Lena does not. She can’t stand the thought of him in prison and refuses to go see him. He actually doesn’t hold that against her, but Rodney does.
Speaking of Rodney, we find out that without a job or his big brother around, he falls in with the wrong crowd. I’m assuming because of his debts, he starts taking part in bareknuckle fights set up by John Petty as a way of paying off his debts. It goes without saying, but this is not a great way to make a living. Besides being physically dangerous, the psychological toll this kind of violence takes on one mind is not to be taken lightly. Rodey is a veteran . He definitely has not adapted to normal life as a civilian, thus he falls into violent circles because he’s drawn to it and thinks that’s all he’s good at. He’s likely suffering from PTSD – if not a bunch of other things – and this lifestyle does not help that. 

When Russell gets out of prison the fighting becomes a point of contention between the two of them. Russell always seemed like a pretty decent guy, but when getting out of prison, he is really making an effort to keep his nose clean. He got his old job at the steel mill back and other than that spends his time repairing the house. The guy is simply happy to be a free man and is intent on living a good life. So when he sees his brother self-destructing, it hurts him. The two of them get into a heated argument over it and Rodney storms off.

Rodney requests a fight with a bigger pay day. Petty reluctantly arranges a fight with a drug deal from NJ that he owes money to. The three of them plan on fixing the fight. They will make a lot of money and Rodney will be able to pay his debts to Petty and Petty will be able to pay his debts to Harlan DeGroat (the man he owes money to). Petty warns Rodney not to double cross him. Rodney has agreed to throw a fight before, but his ego gets in the way and he ends up winning when he’s supposed to lose. He said that DeGroat and his gang are not somebody you want to cross.

Out of the Furnace

Both Rodney and Petty have been gone for a while, so the police in North Braddock start to get involved, but are having problems because New Jersey is out of their jurisdiction. Russell is not happy about this and he isn’t shy about letting Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker) know. Wesley also just so happens to be the new beau of Russell’s old girlfriend Lena (Zoë Saldana). Yeah, so it’s that kind of situation.  Russell decides to take things on himself and conduct his own investigation and is ready, willing, and able to deliver a little backwoods justice if necessary.

This movie was well-acted, gritty, and had a very authentic feel.

Woody Harrelson was fantastic as Harlan DeGroat. In addition to being a drug-dealing scumbag, DeGroat was a real sociopath. He is one of those guys who could be laughing and smiling one minute and would beat you to within an inch of your life the next. Harrelson is good at portraying this kind of character and he’s really sort of underrated if you think about it.

Christian Bale was also good as Russell Baze. Russell is a good guy who has made some mistakes, but he’s still a decent guy. He’s all tattooed up and he seems to know John Petty fairly well, so you get the impression the guy has a past, but he’s a likeable guy. The guy also has a really crappy life. He can’t seem to catch a break. Every way he turns, something bad is happening to him or those around him. Everyone has a breaking point though and his morals are tested though when he watches his brother go down a dark path and has to cope with the fact his girlfriend is with another man. Bale is a good actor and this is a very typical performance of him.

Like the she, I don’t think Casey Affleck is the greatest actor in the world. I don’t think he has a lot of range and there’s just something about his performances that aren’t very believable. I often have trouble believing he is the characters he portrays. That being said, I thought he was ok in this movie. I thought he was ok as the embattled former solider and current lowlife Russell.

Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, Zoë Saldana, and Sam Shepard were all solid in supporting roles too.

Despite all of that, the movie lacked something. It’s a decent story with good acting, but there wasn’t enough going on. There was nothing that stood out about it. It could have benefitted from being fleshed out a little more. I don’t know if that means a longer movie or what, but I felt the story could have used a little more detail.

Rating: Thumbs half up.

This movie review was given the He said, She said seal of approval on July 29, 2014.

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