This is only Scott Cooper’s second film as a director. But he already knows how to bring out lived-in authenticity in actors. His 2009 debut with Crazy Heart resulted in an Oscar win for Jeff Bridges. Out of the Furnace walks meaner streets than that country ramble.
The film opens in 2008, with Obama calling for change and no one buying it in Braddock, Pennsylvania, where you work in the Carrie Furnace mill, if you’re lucky enough to work at all. Remind you of The Deer Hunter much? It should. Out of the Furnace (Lan Theo Dau Vet), simmering with Rust Belt malaise, echoes Michael Cimino’s epic about Pennsylvania steelworkers and Vietnam. Jeez, there’s even a deer hunting scene. It takes a while to stop making comparisons. But the actors pull you in.
Christian Bale, haunted and haunting, plays Russell Baze, a guy who works the Furnace, cares for his dying father, romances Lena (Zoe Saldana), then winds up in prison (for reasons I won’t spoil). His younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) escaped Braddock by doing three tours of duty in Iraq. But now he’s back, getting in with the wrong people. And trying to pay off gambling debts by having his buddy. John Petty (Willem Dafoe), book him for brutal, bare-knuckle fights in New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains.
The boss everyone owes and fears is Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). A meth-head maniac whose violent streak is a mile wide. The reliably terrific Harrelson, lacing terror with lacerating wit, gives the role enough menacing juice to back off an army. Only Russell, just out of prison and having lost Lena to the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker), has the balls to take him on, with the help of his no-bull Uncle Red (Sam Shepard).
That’s the setup, which works out along familiar lines. But what gives the movie its heat is the acting. Affleck, his eyes pools of pain, is outstanding. His scenes with Bale, all coiled intensity ready to spring, are electric. It’s the bruised history of these brothers that gives Out of the Furnace its beating heart and the power to grip you hard.
Out of The Furnace (phim hanh dong 2020) is a quality production, with awards-bid performances from Bale and Affleck to prove it… but, as signalled by the curiously unmemorable title, it flounders while trying to come up with a story to embody the things it wants to say about the sorry state of modern America. Worth seeing, but a near-miss.