Moody, atmospheric, unpredictable and intense
Don't be put off by the painfully generic title - which, despite the literal and symbolic significance would seem more appropriate for a Seagal film, Scott "Crazy Heart" Cooper's sophomore outing is a powerful blend of colourful characters, compelling performances, strong storytelling, gorgeous cinematography, and tense set-pieces. Although Cooper ultimately finds it hard to avoid hitting the odd patch of familiar territory - including in the way in which he handles the denouement - he deserves serious kudos for managing to evoke fond memories of everything from The Deer Hunter to Seven, Deliverance to Raging Bull, masterpieces by anyone's standards, and yet do so without ever allowing it to feel like he is merely trading in borrowed material.
The central premise that appears to have been promoted in relation to this film centres on Christian Bale's deer-hunting steel factory worker trying to protect his younger brother, a returning war vet played by Casey Affleck, from the grubby hands of Woody Harrelson's nasty criminal. Between the revenge thriller vibes, a trailer and poster that appeared to promote Bale's rifle as much as anything else, and, of course, that Seagal-esque action title, it's almost understandable that some people pre-judged the production as little more than a B-movie flick with an A-list cast. However, Out of the Furnace is anything but.
If you give it a chance, this film may well defy all of your expectations.
For starters, none of the characters are what they seem. Bale's blue-collar worker - the reliable, good son who toils all day to pays his brother's gambling debts; who tends to his ailing father and yearns to escape the small town with a passionate girlfriend who is clearly madly in love with him - is really put through the ringer in this tale. The events that befall him will blindside you at every turn. And somehow, defying convention, Cooper and Bale manage to craft an almost anti-hero who is more character than caricature; rich and authentic to the core. Bale may have pulled out all the stops for American Hustle, but Out of the Furnace is arguably a more worthy film; his a more earnest, but honestly flawed character here, and his performance within, whilst less glamorous as Oscar-bait, is perhaps all the more impressive for it.
It doesn't stop there either. Zoe Saldana puts in an absolute career best performance as the girlfriend, and, more than any of the tense conflicts or powerhouse face-offs, one single scene between Bale and Saldana stands out head-and-shoulders above the rest, cutting to the emotional core of the piece. Casey Affleck reminds us once again just how underrated he is, again standing out in his own defining moment, whilst giving PTSD a ring of truth for once, rather than just bandying it around as flavour of the month. Willem Dafoe brings home a rich extended cameo; Forrest Whitaker may well be wasted, but it's nice to see him playing against type for a change; and Woody Harrelson is on scenery-chewing, scene-stealing form.
However, the characters are defined not just through an air of authenticity but by an almost universal theme of redemption.
Cooper deals in mood and atmosphere with aplomb, skilfully building tension through sublime editing, stunning cinematography - of the heady Appalachian hills - and a wondrous score that trades in some perfectly placed and highly evocative song tracks to boot. His original material was a spec script written for Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio - a film which I'd have also loved to have seen - but Cooper reportedly rewrote the tale with plenty of personal flourishes, and there's no doubt that the end result is rich and refined.
Certainly Cooper's swiftly earned himself one-to-watch status, already drawing comparisons - in terms of both writing and filming style, and mood and dark sentiment - not only with the likes of John Hillcoat (The Road, The Proposition, Lawless) and James Gray (The Yards, We Own the Night and the upcoming Blood Ties) but also even with heavyweights like Michael Mann. And that he can bring to mind the aforementioned greats - like The Deer Hunter - and yet diffuse commonalities with a deft sleight-of-hand, is a hell of a talent. Hollywood could learn a lesson or two here.
Eschewing homage or blatant plagiarism, Cooper proves that you can be respectful towards your inspirations whilst still remaining original.
It's a real shame that Out of the Furnace was swept under the carpet on its Stateside release (falling under the shadow of the excellent Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and has likely suffered internationally too as a result of the Oscar-friendly American Hustle (somehow, it's hard to believe the words "Bale's best performance" where spouted about two different films in the same month!) because it's a thoroughly rewarding experience. Indeed I'm already looking forward to seeing it again. Don't get me wrong, it's far from flawless; in fact an argument could be made that a seamless, cohesive whole is not quite constructed from the sum of these great parts, and that key scenes, sequences and shots stand out as greater than the rest, once again reminding us of films like We Are the Night, which also ambitiously tackles an extended timeline, and closes with a marginally contrived denouement.
No, it's not a perfect movie - rounding off this particular tale was a thankless task, and Cooper's handling of the final act is moderately questionable (although that very last shot has more meaning, according to the director, than many have taken from a first viewing, so pay heed) - and it has clearly been quite divisive amongst critics and audiences alike. But, for some, it's proven to be one of the best films of the year so far. And given the heavyweights that its had to contend with, that's a hell of a compliment - Highly Recommended.
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