Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Out of the Furnace

Scott Cooper's latest film, Out of the Furnace, his follow-up to his melancholic Academy Award winning country western themed debut Crazy Heart traipses through the drudges of contemporary working class miserablism, whilst trying to affirm itself into something of myth.  Reminiscent, if only at face value to The Place Beyond the Pines, Derek Cianfrance's gritty springtime-released indie which starred Ryan Gosling, this is another doomed tale of the unlucky who succumb to circumstance with ambitions to harken back to the filmmaking standards prevalent in 1970s American movies while infusing them with a 'now' sense of topicality.  It's an ambition that's well-intentioned and in its most stirring sequences, beautifully filmed, but there's a difference between homage and interpretation. Out of the Furnace visually and stylistically recalls Vietnam-era classics like The Deer Hunter and Coming Home, yet the effort is strained because the characters are generic cinematic tropes of the most hopeless kind.  And however dressed up with a METHOD (the caps are important) preparedness by an ensemble of great actors, the film never manages to come close to bringing it close to the human heart, soul or mind.

The gritty morality tale takes place in Braddock, Pennsylvania, on which it was also filmmed, one of the millions of small American towns where life is hard, and living in it is harder.  Disfranchised and full of the type of working class strife that typically only gets depicted on film in depressing movies that Irish filmmaker Ken Loach likes to make, yet Cooper adeptly establishes a sense of place and time, at least initially, of contemporary men and their struggles in the economically depressed Rust Belt.  A steel mill kind of town, a place where Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works and likely assumes he will expire, not unlike his cancer-ridden father who worked their before him and so forth and so forth.  Sam Shepard pops in as his salt of the earth uncle to ruminate of the better, less scummy times. 

Baze is the neighborhood boy scout-- the hard working, complaint-free all around good guy, loving family guy and boyfriend to Lena (Zoe Saldana), a beauty and seemingly the only woman in the town of Braddock.  Despite the hard knocked ridges, Russell appears to have found comfort and abundant grace within his situation.  The ever boy scout, he even bails his in-between Iraqi war tours younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) out of his gambling debts before the first glimmers of trouble.  As such, it's telegraphed even before it starts that in this brooding, real world of unpleasantness that nice guys can't finish first.  The stage is already set.  A stroke of grand misfortune caused by losing control of the wheel after a night at the bar lands Russell in prison.  And his father succumbs to his illness and Lena has moved onto to the neighborhood sheriff (Forest Whitaker) for comfort.  Life isn't just bad for the working class, it's awful and nearly impossible to be risen out of the endless pit of distresses. 

And Rodney, a live-wire with a nasty case of post traumatic stress disorder, is in ever more and more over his head.  Unable to assimilate with his brother's sense of responsibility, he goes his own way about things like participating in staged bare-knuckle boxing matches in exchange to cover past debts for small time-y thug John Petty (Willem Dafoe) and by extension Big Bad Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson.)  DeGroat, as played by Harrelson in an over-the-top expression of unpleasantness, actually opens the movie with a thoroughly displeasing scene set at drive-in where he shoves a hot dog down his dates mouth and beats a helpful onlooker to a bloody pulp.  The film seemingly posits him as a Rust Belt Kurtz, a be-all-end-all uncontrollable type of evil.  The film tries to straddle the discordant tones of reality-soaked horror and pulpy thriller, yet as it progresses Out of the Furnaces shows its predictable and more and more ridiculous seams along the way.

All the while Cooper seems to try to stage his melodrama with a timelessness that's at once properly set within in its time.  While the gorgeous cinematography of Masanobu Takayanagi, precise editing of David Rosenbloom and appropriately disheveled production design of Thérése DePrez thoughtfully contribute to the real world pain as mythic stage, the characters are felt as all-too programmed and underdeveloped.  Sequences have a sense of grandeur and depth, but there's nary a sense of humanity to it; for instance Cooper juxtaposes one of Rodney's boxing matches with that of a deer being hunted and dressed, the images are nearly beautiful in their grimy sort of way and the subtext is clear, but the emotional connection is no where to be found.  All of which leaves the actors, and they are mighty, left to their own devices.  Harrelson howls as tweaky lost cousin trapped in a Tarantino-directed remake of Winter's Bone and Affleck bleeds from his unstoppable torment with an aw-shucks vigor.  Bale, relieved of his typical astonishing transformation trick is assured in one of the his true nice-guy acts, but he instills a twitchy, utterly acted mania to his performance, playing a character of few words and stoic nature that nevertheless refuses to sit still.

The nonsense and drudgery in Out of the Furnace could have worked had it felt like a lived-in portrait of working class hardship.  However, merely scribbling marginalized characterizations at their most pitiably hard-knocked isn't the same as making them feel real.  Nor is placing them in the context of current recession-era malaise or post-Iraq war post-trauma somehow make it appear more significant or honest.  The groundwork is here, the production values are laudable and the actors are all committed if nothing else, but Out of the Furnace spins small-scaled everyday tragedy into forgettable pulpy hokum.  C

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