An all-star cast, including Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe and Zoë Saldana, headlines the Scott Cooper film. Jeanne has her take.
OUT OF THE FURNACE
Director: Scott Cooper
Written by Brad Ingelsby and Scott Cooper
Cast: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe with Zoë Saldana and Sam Shepard
Producers: Ryan Kavanaugh, Ridley Scott, Leonardo Di Caprio, Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Michael Costigan
Executive Producer: Tucker Tooley, Ron Burkle, Jason Colbeck, Robbie Brenner, Brooklyn Weaver, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Christian Mercuri, Joe Gatta, Jeff Waxman
From Scott Cooper, the critically-acclaimed writer and director of Crazy Heart, comes a gripping and gritty drama about family, fate, circumstance, and justice. Russell Baze (Christian Bale) has a rough life: he works a dead-end blue collar job at the local steel mill by day, and cares for his terminally ill father by night. When Russell’s brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) returns home from serving time in Iraq, he gets lured into one of the most ruthless crime rings in the Northeast and mysteriously disappears. The police fail to crack the case, so – with nothing left to lose – Russell takes matters into his own hands, putting his life on the line to seek justice for his brother. The impressive cast of Christian Bale and Casey Affleck are rounded out by Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard and Willem Dafoe.
In director Scott Cooper’s enticing new film “Out of the Furnace,” Iraqi war veteran Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) journeys to the Ramapo Mountains in New Jersey for bare-knuckle prize-fights with hardscrabble locals, and tragedy ensues. Scott Cooper and Brad Ingelsby wrote the original screenplay, which brings into focus an Appalachian culture which has been the subject of conjecture and rumor for generations.
Those impoverished locals are said to be descended from runaway Dutch slaves who settled in the Appalachian foothills generations ago, but who identify as Indians, and they are thought to number in the thousands. Armed and accustomed to negotiating back roads on ATVs, these tribal people hunt and fish on Stag Hill, and generally steer clear of nearby suburban sprawl and state parks.
The primary focus of this beautifully acted film is Rust Belt Pennsylvania with industrial jobs disappearing; it is the setting for the pain-seared story of the blue-collar Baze family – Russell Baze (Christian Bale), Rodney Baze Jr. (Casey Affleck) and their uncle Gerald Baze (playwright Sam Shepard).
Their lives are simple and challenging all at once. Russell works at the blast furnace or iron mill as his father did. Rodney returns from a fourth tour of duty in Iraq and does not know what to do with his life, but knows he doesn’t want to spend it in the mills, because that kind of work killed his father. Everywhere are giant rust-colored skeletons of mills and foundries abandoned by corporations which could make more profit operating in other countries where they do not have to pay a living wage.
Pleasures are uncomplicated and affordable – growing orchids, watching sports events, rebuilding automobiles, cooking, gambling with the local bookie. Rodney bets on sporting events and loses; he owes money to John Petty (Willem Dafoe), and agrees to bareknuckle prizefights to pay the debt. Russell has a few drinks and drives too fast one night, hitting another vehicle. Someone dies in the accident; prison time is unavoidable.
The bond between the brothers is tight, and their love of family is deep. Russell leaves the bed of his beloved Lena Taylor (Zoe Saldana) early in the morning, so as to get home and check on his dying father before going to work in the mills. Uncle Gerald and brother Rodney are already there. Later Rodney visits Russell in prison faithfully until the older brother has served his time for vehicular manslaughter.
Dialogue is lean and spare, like their homes and pastimes. They joke about the hill people, about families on Stag Hill being inbred, about their church services not being over until all the snakes have been picked up from the church floor. The two communities co-exist but don’t cross each other’s path unless absolutely necessary. When Russell is desperate enough to enter their world, he knows enough to be nervous, to be scared, but this is something he must do.
A time comes when life is lifted out of the ordinary, when just going through each day holding on to what you have doesn’t work anymore. Too much is changing around you. Christian Bale’s performance as the older brother trying to hold on to what he has is breathtaking in its quiet strength and subtlety. The same is true of Sam Shepard’s performance as his uncle, whether they are talking about Russell’s younger brother, or visiting the family gravesites, or hunting deer.
Zoe Saldana (“Avatar” and “The Words”) is lovely as Lena, the woman who means everything to Russell. He looks for her after his prison term is completed. Their afternoon meeting on the bridge is exquisite. Russell’s body language tells you everything you need to know about his agony and indecision.
We are accustomed to Forest Whitaker playing powerful characters in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “The Last King of Scotland,” but he has reached the point in his career where he is able to play any part he wishes including smaller quieter roles which appeal. In this film he is Wesley Barnes, the police chief of a small town sliding into decay.
The stage is set, so to speak. How will Russell handle these twin crises – his brother missing and the danger to his relationship with Lena? And how can police chief Barnes convince Russell he wants to help in the search for Rodney?
Woody Harrelson plays Harlan DeGroat, the antagonist. We first see him at a drive-in movie, impatient with his wife because she is taking too long to eat a sandwich. Give it to me, he says. No, I want to eat it, she replies. Give it to me, he says again and she recognizes that tone, knows she had better surrender the food. Still not satisfied, he orders her to open her mouth and then shoves a cigar down her throat. OK, so now we know who he is, long before we see him shooting crystal meth between his toes.
The enemy in this elegiac film — this graceful remembrance of a way of living — is indifference. Families are destroyed, entire communities are crippled by the plentiful presence of instantly addicting drugs – whether prescription painkillers or street drugs. Crystal meth kills in so many ways, and it has become a very big business. These drugs are freely available, reminding one of how Old World capitalists in the 18th century kept factory workers off balance by supplying cheap whiskey in endless amounts to deaden the misery and awareness of the new industrial class.
Each performance in “Out of the Furnace” is a tribute to the writer/director’s vision and to the actor’s intention. Outdoor visuals are haunting, possessing a bittersweet melancholy. Violence in the film builds, not in terms of volume or intensity, but only in terms of what is unavoidable, with the exception of Harlan DeGroat.
Legal complications may loom for the director and producers of “Out of the Furnace,” since they chose to name their vicious antagonist after one of the most prominent Ramapough families — the DeGroats. Members of the tribal nation are not happy with Cooper’s portrayal of their world. Ramapough Lenape Chief Dwaine Perry has called the movie a “hate crime” for its depiction of his people
We can debate the wisdom of using existing family names from Stag Hill in a work of fiction, and regret careless film editing on that point. However, the film overall is a memorable meditation on what life could have been for both the blue-collar mill workers and the socially isolated Ramapough community.