Saturday, December 7, 2013

Out of the Furnace into Hell

Masterfully and vividly, Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace renders two sordid worlds: a depressed Pennsylvania steel mill town and the seedy hillbilly locales of the New Jersey Appalachians. Shots of Braddock, the mill town, will remind you of the memorable depiction of the steel mill town in The Deer Hunter; the plot will remind you of Cimino's film as well. A roadside hangout and a rotting crack house are memorably portrayed in the New Jersey scenes. Thus, the film is visually gripping from beginning to end – scene after scene.

In addition, the film provides a feast of talented, naturalistic acting by Woody Harrelson, Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Shephard. The acting is tremendous. Bale portrays Russell's development throughout the story very well, and I am always riveted by Casey Affleck's acting. Love the scene in which Russell meets the New Jersey boss (Harrelson) and they stand, faces inches apart, Harrelson sucking on a lollipop. "I'm supposed to think he's a badass because he sucks on a lollipop?" I love Casey's understated delivery and his uneasy smirks or half-laughs.

Within a running length of 116 minutes, the film is epic – following Russell Baze in his attempts to save his brother, Rodney, (Affleck), traumatized by his experiences in Iraq, from compulsive gambling that leads him into the dangerous world of bare-knuckles boxing – a competition ruled here by a mean son of a bitch from New Jersey (Harrelson), whose conscienceless brutality is established in the film’s outrageously shocking opening scene. The story takes Russell to prison and back to Braddock where he devotes himself to saving his brother, which leads him into the hellish den of New Jersey degenerates that spell Rodney’s downfall.

I was gripped by visuals and performances throughout two thirds of this film. Then, when things get inextricably hopeless for Russell, the plot doesn’t really know where to go – or it knows where to go and doesn’t go there expeditiously enough. Too bad. For the majority of its length, this is one of the best films I’ve seen all year. But it takes you on an epic journey into a present-day hell only to leave you hanging in an unsatisfying limbo.

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