*. We start in a drive-in movie theatre. In 2013? This is some indication that we are in a land that time forgot. Perhaps somewhere near the Ramapo Mountains in New Jersey. And a really bad dude with the really bad name of Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) is abusing his girlfriend. Then he beats the shit out of a guy who comes in to break things up. And you think “Is Out of the Furnace going to all be like this?”
*. Pretty much. Out of the Furnace is Hollywood doing rust-belt America. Specifically the mill town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. And places like the backwoods/hill country of the Ramapos. For some reason Harlan DeGroat is connected to a bar owner in Braddock, despite it being a five-hour drive from where he lives. Also in Braddock live Russell Baze (Christian Bale), who works at the mill but has just got out of prison, and Russell’s brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) who has just got back from Iraq and now makes a living by kicking ass and getting his ass kicked in the backyard fight circuit.
*. That pretty much gets the whole underclass of America in one basket. Failing industry. The carceral state. Vets with PTSD (“I gave my life for this country, and what’s it fucking done for me?”). A failing health care system (Mr. Baze senior is dying pathetically at home). Drug use. Crime. Tattoos. Fight club. When the movie came out the good citizens of the Ramapos filed a lawsuit against the studio for portraying their locale as one filled with “lawless, drug-addicted, impoverished and violent” inbreds that even the police were afraid to venture into. But there was nothing new in any of this, or particular to the Ramapos. It’s part of the long shadow of Deliverance, and the backbone of American horror since Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
*. Heavy stuff then, and it’s made heavier by the partnership of director Scott Cooper and star Christian Bale, who would later team up in the even more dour Western Hostiles. Bale here does his usual Bale thing, which is a lot of intensity without much in the way of intelligence. When you spend as much time as I did wondering why he didn’t just cut his hair instead of always running his fingers through it to keep it out of his eyes then you know there’s not much to the character.
*. The plot is heavy too, with clichés. Bale wants to look out for his kid brother, but the kid gets into trouble when he has local barkeep Willem Dafoe set him up in a fight in the Ramapos. If you’re thinking there has to be an easier, albeit no less criminal, way for this guy to make some money you’d be right, but we need a movie here. Which means Rodney hasn’t figured out any way he could possibly make money by winning the fights he gets paid to throw.
*. These points that make no real sense but just have to be included to keep the plot moving are as maddening as they are inevitable. Another example takes the form of Bale’s ex (Zoe Saldaña) leaving him to shack up with the Braddock police chief (Forest Whitaker). This keeps all our main characters connected, however unlikely it may be.
*. What I’m getting at here is the incongruity between a movie that goes for grit and the kitchen sink but at the same time always feels like a movie. There’s a laboured parallel, for example, between Rodney getting killed in the Ramapos while Russell and his uncle hunt a deer. The parallel is only there to be noticed, and probably make you think of The Deer Hunter as well (Bale, like De Niro, lets the deer get away). But it’s a movie deer hunt, because when people hunt deer they sit all day in a blind or a stand and wait for a deer to come by. They don’t go walking through the woods hoping to sneak up on one unaware.
*. Another point of incongruity in the drive for authenticity: apparently Bale learned how to operate the machinery in the mill for the film so they wouldn’t need a double. Why? I knew this factlet before I saw the movie so I was hoping to see him show off some of his mill moves. If he learned anything I don’t know what it was. We’re talking about only a few seconds of screen time.
*. You’ll have gathered from the names I’ve mentioned that this is a strong cast. And I didn’t even drop in Sam Shepard as Russell’s uncle, because it’s an entirely superfluous part. But this is an incongruity too. It’s like Hollywood-on-the-Monongahela here.
*. Despite all of this, Out of the Furnace actually works pretty well. The photography is first rate, as is the set design. The home interiors do look authentic. Yes, the plot plays out exactly as you know it’s going to, but despite this it actually remains entirely watchable and I don’t recall ever being bored by it. I guess it’s hard to mess material like this up as long as you play it straight (and keep kids out of it, unless you want to end up with something like A Perfect World). And heaven knows Cooper and Bale are two guys who are going to play it straight all the way down the line.
*. Aside from that, there may be some kind of message in here about a crisis in contemporary masculinity, but I sure didn’t feel like pulling it out. Rodney’s angry tirade about the horrors of Iraq reminded me of Pacino talking about junkies putting babies in microwaves in Heat (an urban legend, at the time). Not because people being blown apart or babies in microwaves isn’t awful, but because of the way it’s played in both movies as a trump card for what real men have to endure while civs stay safe at home.
*. While not necessarily toxic, this angry, suffering masculinity didn’t seem very healthy either. I might say the same for the politics, as a dig is taken at the liberal betrayal of the working class. And we know how that has played out. All of which finally made me wonder if anyone is well served by Hollywood venturing into this territory.