Out of the Furnace: Christian Bale at his Best

OUT OF THE FURNACEDramatically compelling and boldly brutal, Out of the Furnace is the striking follow-up of director Scott Cooper, who led the much-nominated Jeff Bridges to an Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart.

World-premiering as closing night of the AFI Fest, Out of the Furnace, which is Cooper’s second feature and was produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, will be released by Relativity in December.

Not that he needed further proof, but Christian Bale renders another stunning performance, likely to get him a Best Actor nomination.  Bale had won the 2010 Supporting Actor Oscar for David O. Russell’s The Fighter (Bale is also appearing in Russell’s new movie, American Hustle).

Out_The_Furnace_3As a tough drama about war vets facing an unsettling socio-economic reality upon returning home, Out of the Furnace will be inevitably compared to The Best Years of Our Lives, William Wyler’s 1946 film, which swept all the major Oscars that year.

As a small-town film set in Braddock, Pennsylvania and concerning decent and exploited Americans of the working class, Out of the Furnace bears thematic resemblance to the 1978 Oscar winner, The Deer Hunter, which was also set in rural Pennsylvania. (One scene, in which Bale is hunting deer in the forest, pays homage to Michael Cimino’s film downright to the image of Bale unable to shoot, just as Robert De Niro’s).

Either way, both comparisons elevate the stature of this powerful, if deliberately paced tale to an Oscar-caliber picture, one that boasts strong performances not only from Bale but also from Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe. (Can a movie be better-cast than that?)

Essentially, Out of the Furnace (a great, accurate title) is yet another dark deconstruction of the rapidly fading (perhaps already faded) American Dream, focusing on one ordinary family, but suggesting that what it says about this particular clan may apply to other disenfranchised members of society.

out_of_the_furnace_1Director-co-writer Scott Cooper’s second feature displays a darker, more melancholy tone than the one manifest in “Crazy Heart,” a possible function of the subject matter as well as the helmer’s maturity and collaboration on the script with Brad Ingelsby.

Bale plays credibly (and incredibly) Russell Baze, a hard-working man who, along with his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), was born and raised in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a Rust Belt hamlet populated by generations of American steel workers. From one generation to another: Russell followed their father into the mills, while Rodney takes the only other option open to young men like him and enlists in the Army, yearning to find a better life outside of Braddock.

After four brutal tours of duty in Iraq, an emotionally and physically depleted Rodney returns to a recession-weary town that offers even fewer options than those that had prevailed before he left. When a twist of fate sends Russell in prison, the younger guy switches to horse-betting and competing as a bare-knuckle boxer.  Bruised and mired in debt, Rodney falls under the clutches of a vicious sociopath named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), the leader of a ruthless backwoods crime ring in the New Jersey Ramapo Mountains.

When Rodney suddenly disappears–after his brother is released from prison–Russell begins a journey into hell, an inevitable descent into aOut_The_Furnace_2 corrupt and violent-milieu, from which there is no exit.  Following in the tradition of classic American heroes, Russell embarks on a risky journey to bring Rodney home. That he fails to do so has more to do with the banality of evil that DeGroat represents than with his own determination and abilities.

The last reel, in which the hauntingly obsessed Russell pursues DeGroat to the bitter end, raises  serious concern of vigilante justice, or taking the law into one’s hands, an issue that has plagued American movies since Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry in 1971.