Russell and his younger brother Rodney live in the economically-depressed Rust Belt, and have always dreamed of escaping and finding better lives. But when a cruel twist of fate lands Russell in prison, his brother becomes involved with one of the most violent and ruthless crime rings in the Northeast - a mistake that will cost him everything. Once released, Russell must choose between his own freedom, or risk it all to seek justice for his brother. Written by
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Still an accurate portrait of many towns in America today
Weeks before I took the time to see Out of the Furnace on its opening day today, I saw an interview with the cast where star Christian Bale made a comment about how the script and the character really stuck with him before he'd ever agreed to take the role. While I normally hate to see a film based on something ANY of the actors involved have said (because really, who WOULDN'T give their film a nice push to the press?), I had a gut feeling I'd want to see this one. It's a good thing I tend to go with my gut, because if you watch for two hours with an open mind, Out of the Furnace is certainly filled with dilemmas people across America STILL face on a daily basis -- and that alone is why it will hit too close to home. It is why some people will say it is "too" gritty, "too" depressing, "too" much of something.
I'm a New Jersey native, and my state is filled with many towns that are run down and haven't seen anything positive happen in them in decades. A town not far from me lost its heart when a tea factory was forced out and jobs outsourced to China in the 90s. Just across the border, 20 minutes into Pennsylvania, is an old steel town (not the one in the film) that drove workers out of their mills in the 80s, the old blast furnaces still towering over the "south side" of town that is dotted with row homes. If you've ever driven through Michigan, at least a handful of cities there would paint the same picture as anything you'll see in Out of the Furnace. In Indiana, the same. I point this out because several moviegoers in the theater where I saw the film were saying that Out of the Furnace paints an unrealistic portrait of the "worst" parts of America, making them seem worse than they are. But until people have lived that lifestyle, it's easy to say that it doesn't still exist. What I appreciated about Furnace is that Cooper had the guts to make a gritty film that points out that there are towns filled with good people who can never get beyond their "hard times".
Is it unrealistic, perhaps, to assume that bare-knuckle fighting rings are organized nationwide? Perhaps. It doesn't mean, however, that there aren't plenty of illegal activities happening at the hands of "desperate" men (many of our nation's veterans are homeless, don't forget). Cooper chose Braddock as a great setting for this film, and he chose great actors to portray "everyman". And honestly, I see why he waited for Christian Bale to come around to making this film; nobody could have pulled off Russell Baze the way that Bale does -- with his quiet desperation, his eyes telling you everything that is churning in his gut, the weariness settled into his body making him sometimes appear aged beyond his years. Where Bale brings a quietness to Russell, Casey Affleck brings the loud emotive bursts and the scrappiness of his youth to Rodney Baze, and the two work wonderfully in balancing the "brotherhood" aspect of the film. While I fault Cooper for failing to tell us more of the relationship between the two, I feel that both actors worked hard to bring the familial bond to the forefront of the story.
There are several aspects to the storytelling that are to be admired. For one, the juxtaposition between Russell out hunting while his brother is being driven to what could potentially be his death match -- a "hunt" of his own -- was brilliant in its pacing. The same can be said for the scene where we assume the "bad" guy (Woody Harrelson taking a terrifying turn as the film's antagonist) is going to finally be caught by the law enforcement swarming his home. And finally, the bridge scene between Russell and Lena (Baze's girlfriend played admiringly well by Zoe Saldana) is one that gives a heart to a film that is otherwise dark and depressing. It's because of moments like these that I was able to overlook the film's obvious flaws. There is patchy storytelling (blame the script writers), but the actors all grab hold of the material they've been given and work well with it despite its shortcomings. What I ultimately applaud Out of the Furnace for is the fact that these characters could still represent many people in this country and throughout the world. How far would we ALL go, trying so hard to be "good" day in and day out, waiting for a break, trying to earn the extra dollar...before we got tired of the rest of the world getting ahead without us, and we take matters into our own hands?
Out of the Furnace poses this thought-provoking question and lets the viewer see how you can go down either path. Everyone wants to say that they'd still stay on the straight and narrow, but until you can put yourselves into the shows of these characters, you just truly never know. Ask yourself what you would do if Rodney Baze was YOUR brother? How far would you go for family -- for a family member who had put his own life on the line for this country? How far would you go in a town where everything else had shut down around you? Cooper doesn't give us the best film of the year with Out of the Furnace, but he and this cast give you plenty to think about long after the credits roll.
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