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Out of the Furnace: Hot in Herre

by Ethan Alter December 6, 2013 5:55 am
<i>Out of the Furnace</i>: Hot in Herre

With Gotham City in his rear view, Christian Bale ventures down Appalachia way in Out of the Furnace, the sophomore feature from actor-turned-would-be-auteur, Scott Cooper. Like his debut film, Crazy Heart, Furnace is a ruggedly regional film about working-class men who have long since let go of any youthful ambition and are now just looking to get by, wringing whatever modest pleasures out of life that they can. Also like Crazy Heart, Furnace is simple and straightforward to a fault. You spend the whole movie expecting it to lead someplace challenging or, failing that, genuinely interesting, only to arrive at the end credits without it having ventured any further than surface-level.

Crazy Heart, at least, had the relaxed, easygoing presence of Jeff Bridges -- who won an overdue Oscar for his hammy, but charismatic star turn as a faded country western singer -- to distract from its overly familiar narrative arc. Bale is a good actor, and occasionally a great one, but he doesn't do "relaxed" or "easygoing." (It says something about his skill set that his most good-natured performance to date remains Patrick Bateman from American Psycho). And so the ex-Dark Knight grims and grimaces his way through the role of Russell Baze, a blue collar guy from a small mill town buried deep in the heart of Pennsylvania and at the base of the Appalachian Mountains. At the beginning of the film, Rodney is capably juggling his factory job, his loving girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), and his family, including his sick father and soldier brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). But a tragic accident rips him out of this life and deposits him in prison for a four-year spell, during which time he loses his dad (to illness), his girl (to another man) and his sibling (to successive tours overseas).

When Russell is finally released back into the world, Rodney is there to meet him, but he's been profoundly changed by his wartime experiences, displaying a deep reservoir of anger along with other signs of PTSD. Looking for an easy way to make some money that doesn't involve manual labor, he hits the local bare-knuckle brawling circuit and eventually connives his way into a hillside fight club overseen by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a meth dealer and all-around vicious asshole who even the cops steer clear of. His run-in with Harland doesn't end happily, as you might expect, piling yet another tragedy on top of Russell's lengthy list of sob stories. But it's this tragedy that finally breaks him out of his post-prison stupor and awakens the vengeance-minded frontiersman within.

To their credit, I suppose, Cooper and his cast strive to respect the milieu they're depicting by checking any glamor at the door, both in terms of their personal appearances and any Hollywood-approved narrative embellishments. (Saldana doesn't turn to stripping to pay the bills, for example, and there are no third-act twists like Bale discovering that he and Harrelson are actually related). Out of the Furnace aspires to be described with such adjectives as "raw" and "stripped-down," resolutely focused on repeatedly slapping the characters across the face with the harsh hand of reality. But the movie winds up confusing miserable-ism with realism; it may not romanticize these individuals, but it sure as hell romanticizes their suffering, none more so than Russell -- the noble hero brought low by suffering and then awarded the chance to reassert his masculinity in a finale that's intended to be non-triumphant, even though it totally is. That's par for the course in Furnace, a movie that sets out to be the antidote to glossy revenge pictures, but becomes that very thing. The only person who seems aware of the film's duplicity (and, not coincidentally, the sole reason for seeing the movie) is Harrelson, who deliberately plays Harlan like a cross between a reality show hillbilly and a James Bond -- or, more appropriately, Batman -- villain. Radiating menace every time he enters the frame, Harrelson is the most authentic thing in the movie, largely because he doesn't work so hard to be authentic.

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