Movie Review: Out of the Furnace- Scott Cooper’s Ambitious Second Feature Results in a Relentlessly Bleak and Unintentionally Flat Portrait of Modern America
Film’s that seek to contemplate ideas on unsettling injustice or venture the blackest hidden fissures of society take on the risky but potentially rewarding task of making the purely bleak into something poetically involving. This seems to be the driving force behind the intention of director Scott Cooper’s sophomore directorial effort who is just coming off the high of obtaining Jeff Bridges an Oscar from his first feature Crazy Heart, the alcoholic slanted country singing film closely related to Tender Mercies. It’s clear that Cooper is a student of cinema and the intention in the script from Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby for Out of the Furnace was to capture the turbulent bleakness that was evident in the tone of reflective cinema in the 70s, such as the war, post-war, and employment struggles of say Michael Cimino’s Deer Hunter, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and Hal Ashby’s Coming Home, and applying their societal criticism through amplified drama in a film that tackles symptoms of the modern American nightmare. It’s also a frigidly bleak combination of a neo-war and neo-western intending to utilize the structure and themes of both genres to contemplate the American tendency of descending into violence through desperate claims for retribution in the face of injustice. However, intention doesn’t often find a link to effective drama and poetic engagement because the debilitating aspect to Cooper’s latest film is the fact that it begins in uncomfortable morbidity and never leaves it lingering on a downward spiral of depressing occurrences keeping the film flat lining until a semi-rewarding final half hour. The assumption held within the incessantly bleak Out of the Furnace is that unfortunate circumstances themselves equal audience sympathy for oddly subtle semi- developed characters hoping that the utilization of weighty melodrama and overt depictions of modern societal ills pummels you into histrionic submission. There’s something to be admired in Scott Cooper’s ambition to tackle dark themes that attempt to depict a portrait of damaged humanity amidst what he sees as societal degradation but it seems his promising talent and the definite promise of powerful performances from a cast of exceptional actors just goes to waste as his eerily silent yet questionably confused ending comes to a steady halt. There’s a fine, fine line between visually depicting symptoms that need urgency care in society and actually hypothesizing about their remedies or importance, which Cooper fails to do on numerous levels. Out of the Furnace has the cinematic qualities of a reflective film of the 70s, including grainy cinematography and an uneasy yet powerful complimentary score, and while it attempts to be thematically high concept it lands flat through its unrelenting cynicism that possibly could have succeeded in a more matured director’s hands.
Scott Cooper and Brad Ingelsby’s script for Out of the Furnace attempts to humanize the often times looked over effects of American society’s less than unfortunate qualities, appropriately visualized through the setting of the dilapidated Rust Belt city of Braddock, Pennsylvania, which ranges from unsafe work environments, delayed post-traumatic stress from war, rampant unemployment, and an underlying sense of injustice. It’s a great weight to carry and each of these themes, often referred to as mere statistics rather than presented as emotionally felt realities, is depicted with clear intention if not always complimented through involved sympathetic connection. Out of the Furnace follows Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a hardworking and caring man who is imprisoned after an unfortunate accident which ends up separating him from taking care of his dying father, being the responsible core for his hardened and cynical brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), and becoming a true family man with his love Lena (Zoe Saldana). Once he’s been released and attempts to reconstruct the order in his life he’s forced to confront a backwoods Mafioso drug dealer and underground fight bookie named Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) when Russell’s brother goes missing after getting involved with these underground fighters to settle his encroaching debts. It’s not as though there isn’t enough material involved in Out of the Furnace but rather the compacted various depressing themes take a heavy toll on an already confused and alienated viewer who continually attempts to grab onto some semblance of lightheartedness or gain a foothold on some genuine sympathetic grounding. Instead of inviting the viewer into the numerous tragedies that befall the struggling but eternally optimistic Russell the film piles on the unrelenting torrent of bleak circumstances forcing the film’s plot to feel flat, disengaged, and as though it could have been an incredibly important portrait of modern American living. It’s partially the fault of Scott Cooper and Brad Ingelsby’s ambitious yet continually heartbreaking script that makes the darkened tone exhaust the viewer but it also can be contributed to the equally disengaged film style that Cooper tries to mimic from a better time of filmmaking in the 70s.
It’s difficult to harshly judge the admirable cinematic endeavor that Scott Cooper chose to take on with Out of the Furnace because it’s definitely an homage to 70s cinema where reflections on the human condition and criticisms on societal displacement gave audiences deeply contemplative and emotionally engaging visual stories. Though the final product adopts the right elements to embody a serious and reflective drama with its grainy cinematography, haunting score, and raw performances it doesn’t convince that Scott Cooper’s present talent as a young filmmaker taking on his second feature was ready to take on such a layered and high minded film. Since the script is chock full of various themes criticizing current American cultural downtrends and odd mixtures of varying cinematic styles, mainly the shadowy mirror of bleak humanity in the noir and the expansive quest for retribution from the western, it’s clear that it was difficult for Cooper to balance them all into a coherent structure and emotionally felt presentation that only sometimes intrigues with its unconventional choices. There just seems to be a displacement in all of the technical aspects in Out of the Furnace flattening the impact of the dreary experience despite the great looking grainy imagery provided by the talented Masanobu Takayanagi that generates an appropriate visual tapestry reflecting the darkened moodiness of the material alongside the haunting evocative score by Dickon Hinchliffe. Throughout the film there are some intense moments of imagery that showcase Cooper’s ability to capture beauty, with Bale cascaded in light inside an abandoned steel mill, and brutality giving his film an appropriate dichotomy of American life while also unintentionally making the film appear uneven due to Cooper’s inability to balance the two rivaling extremes into a coherent whole. Out of the Furnace is an unfortunate deflation of potential since it makes exceptionally risky creative choices in order to bring a searing portrait of American ills to a humanized front but fails to make them truly felt or engaging due to a flatness in delivery that effects the entire presentation including the wide range of talent in the often times subtle and momentarily explosive performances.
What’s impressive about the acting throughout Out of the Furnace is the fact that there is a unique blend of overly subtle performance mixed with some slowly build to rise emotional outbursts that gives each of the actors some space to create authentic characters. Christian Bale always has a domineering presence on screen and though his portrayal as the hardworking Russell Baze is entirely subtle there is still an emotional clarity to what he’s feeling in every passing moment. One break in his intended monotonous facial coldness comes when his character figures out that his true desire for happiness can never come true as he holds back tears in a gripping and essential scene for Bale’s character. All of the more evocative acrobatics are left to Casey Affleck portraying a veteran struggling to assimilate back into the normalcy of society and Woody Harrelson as a drug peddling underground fighting bookie as they both thrive in their damaged character portrayals. One of the weaker acting elements comes from Zoe Saldana who has a graceful presence on screen but never invites us into her deeper emotional struggles except for one intimate moment heightened by Bale’s domineering presence. Though it’s clear that Cooper thrives on getting his actors to deliver quality performances, something his entire cast did in Crazy Heart beyond the Award winning performance of Jeff Bridges, there is a drastic lack of synergy throughout Out of the Furnace in some essential scenes that aids in the flatness of the entire picture because the subtlety of emotion outweighs the importance of being emotionally clear. Cooper is being unconventionally ambiguous in his acting direction for a majority of the scenes in the film hoping that the vagueness of emotion translates into the vagueness of message but never comes together leaving behind confusion, bleakness, and only the hint of something poetic. It’s refreshing to see some exceptional performers getting the chance to showcase some master class acting strengths with Bale as a subtle perfectionist and Harrelson as a threatening presence but what is lacking is an emotional context that breathes life and purpose into the depressing circumstances that make Out of the Furnace an unrelenting downward spiral into injustice. The fine acting in all of its impressive features is enough to keep you following the tragic tale but the overwhelming themes in the script coupled with a disengaged direction never allows the performances to be truly felt.
Painting a humanist portrait on the societal struggles that many suffer through in America, whether it’s post-traumatic stress, crippling unemployment, tragic twists of fate, or a descent into violence, is an ambitious and commendable endeavor that Scott Cooper attempts to tackle in his second directorial effort Out of the Furnace. However, pummeling your audience with tragic event after tragic event without any grounding sympathy with the characters beyond an assumption that they deserve your caring simply because of their existence doesn’t make for an engaging or even slightly entertaining film experience. Out of the Furnace seeks to showcase the symptoms of societal ills in modern America and while it successfully brings to light the more depressing aspects of the culture it certainly fails to engage your participation as the bleakness becomes overwhelming and the emotional energy never arrives. As a risky attempt of homage to the contemplative reflections that filled the moody and raw films of the 70s, Out of the Furnace fits fairly well in technical delivery and wide range of performance but it never finds a building point as it remains flat lined from its morbid beginning to its very ambiguous end. Scott Cooper’s second feature could very well become a film that inspires studies and intense philosophical debate pertaining to the issues it wishes to address and while it serves as a noble effort it still unfortunately becomes an exhausting and unintentionally flat cinema experience.
Side note: This movie comes out in limited release November 27th