Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard
Revenge is the hot topic in ‘Out of the Furnace’ director Scott Cooper’s follow up to 2009’s Oscar- Nominated. ‘Crazy Heart’. And it is the concept of revenge that Cooper looks to address in this impressive piece of cinema. It’s a debate that dates back to William Shakespeare and ‘Hamlet’, after the murder of a loved one could you yourself become the killer and take vengeance and would that make you feel better about your loss afterward?
This is precisely the dilemma that Russell Blaze (Bale) finds himself in when his little brother Rodney (Affleck) goes missing after being involved in an illegal bare- knuckle boxing ring run by the infamous Harlan DeGroat played by an unflinching Woody Harrelson. Russell plies his trade at the local steel mill and is madly in love with his fiancée Lena (Saldana) his brother Rodney is more of a tear-away having recently returned from a long stint in the Iraq War. But after Russell is involved in a hit- and- run accident and goes to jail he then returns home to find his fiancée in the arms of another man and his little brother on an altogether destructive path. The results of which are bloody and devastating.
There are layers to this film however and the narrative actually plays against the back drop of a broken and depression wrought American society. Scott Cooper here commenting on his concerns about contemporary America and the way in which lives are lost in the endless machine of capitalism. His previous film ‘Crazy Heart’ took an introspective look at addiction and how little support there is for people who suffer with this problem, that film showed how relationships can break down altogether and how life can be stunted by the harms of alcoholism. ‘Out of the Furnace’ comments on a varying degree of issues. Rodney is a war veteran who has clearly not been looked after by his government and is suffering from PTSD, a scathing attack on Bush’s administration and the ‘War on Terror’. For Rodney the terror is at home, he is forced to seek violence as a means of employment as he feels he can no longer function as an ordinary member of society.
Industry also places a huge part, the people we see on screen are men born from the furnaces. Men who only exist in this place to serve the oppressive steel mills that loom on every horizon billowing out smoke. Russell is devoted to the mill and slaves away there pre and post jail. Rodney despises it stating “the fucking mill killed our father, fuck the mill”. The privatisation of American industry is highlighted when Bale’s character states that the mill is being shut down “It’s cheaper to buy steal from China” his life now seemingly at a loss with the only job he has ever done being taken from under his nose. He is left with nothing to lose; no brother, no father, no fiancée and no career. Revenge it seems is all he has left, his sole focus.
This added with a lack of faith in local law enforcement, portrayed by Chief Wesley Barnes (Whitaker) who does little to aid Russell’s desire for redemption paints a picture of a broken America. A society that produces violent characters like Harlan DeGroat who are exempt from the law and out of control. The stark realisation in this film is that this is a work of fiction but it isn’t far from the truth. Cooper uses reality as his canvas and adds great actors into the mix to strengthen his point.
Harrelson is absolutely outstanding as DeGroat a sort of backwaters hill-billy mob boss. The opening sequence of the film shows him shove a lit cigar down a woman’s throat and punch a man half to death before driving off and leaving a pile of bodies in his wake. I’ve seen him act well in films but never quite as good as this, he is truly terrifying.
But the main applaud goes to Christian Bale. Russell Blaze is not the type of character you’d expect to see as the focus of a revenge- thriller and he’s not the kind of character Bale usually plays. He is as far from Patrick Bateman as you will ever see him. Russell is mild mannered, considerate and in no way would you consider him violent. This makes his decision to exact revenge all the more heart- breaking. It is out of his character and takes a lot of mental strength to exact.
A good narrative is something all film’s should have but very rarely do films come along that have so much to say about our lives that really portray something real and effective. ‘Out of the Furnace’ is all these things and more. What Scott Cooper does is ask you the question: “Is all of this right?” and challenges you to make the right decisions in your own life by showing you the mistakes that other people are driven to make. Whether you agree with revenge or not it really is compelling to see the lengths one man will go to in order to defend his legacy and ‘Out of the Furnace’ does this perfectly.