In some ways the new and important looking drama from director Scott Cooper, Out of the Furnace, can be considered a companion piece to The Deer Hunter. Both are set in an economically depressed, blue-collar Pennsylvania mill town, both have war as a backdrop – here you substitute Vietnam for Iraq – and both go deer hunting; not exactly a retread but the comparisons are unavoidable. Here are the principles.
Russell Blaze (Christian Bale) is a nice enough, ordinary kind of guy who, like many in this setting, is having a tough time getting through the day. He works at a steel mill, tends to his ill father and is trying to make a relationship with Lena (Zoe Saldana) work, but nothing is easy.
Russell’s brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck) returns from service in Iraq and can’t adjust. “Come work at the mill,” his brother suggests, but Rodney is having none of it. “I’d rather be dead,” the younger brother says.
Rodney is angry. It’s the kind of anger you carry around with you all day even if you’re never quite sure what you’re angry about. Things are owed to him. For him, mill working will never be a part of his life. Rodney wants something else and he wants it now. “I gave my life for the country and what’s it ever done for me?” he cries.
Then there’s Willem Dafoe as John Petty, a local, small time illegal fight arranger who arranges a bare-knuckle fight for Rodney for big money. At first, the man is reluctant to get Rodney involved. “I’m trying to protect you,” he tells the young man, knowing that the type of men Rodney will be fighting do nothing fair. As Defoe describes them, “They’re in-bred mountain folk from New Jersey,” and they’re dangerous. But Rodney wants the money and he wants the bare-knuckle challenge.
“I’m going to do this one last fight,” Rodney declares in a letter he’s left behind for his brother, and that’s the last we’ll see of him. From there it becomes the older brother’s duty to find out what happened to Russell when the young man went up the mountains and how far the older member is willing to go to seek revenge.
The principle villain is one of those dangerous mountain folk, Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) a vicious, drug-dealing killer with a hair-trigger temper that never quits. He’s the kind of guy you never want to meet, let alone talk to. He’ll ask a question, you’ll answer, and no matter what you’ve said, he’d find a way to twist it, treat it as an insult and lash out. In what should be a civilized culture such as ours, a man like DeGroat doesn’t make sense. But he, and many like him, exist, and Woody Harrelson does psychotic nut jobs so well.
There’s a lot to appreciate in Out of the Furnace – performances are top notch, the grainy look of the widescreen cinematography perfectly captures the feel of the depressed locale – but it’s a hard film to like. Other than an admiration of cinematic style, there’s no sense of enjoyment being in the company of some of these people or getting to observe them so closely. Their presence is unwelcome but because of the professionalism of the film and the quality of its performers you’re intrigued enough to want to know the outcome, though when it finally arrives you leave the theatre with an overall feeling of nothing achieved, nothing gained. And what the final fade out is supposed to tell us is anybody’s guess.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 106 Minutes Overall Rating: 6 (out of 10)