By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
One is brought to shuddering terror by the depiction of an insular, degenerate, inbred population of mountain people frighteningly personified by Woody Harrelson in director Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace.” While the plot itself is a simple tale of revenge with nary a twist or turn along its predictable and violent path, the film is fraught with haunting atmosphere and deeply disquieting, sociological aspersion.
While the script written by Cooper with Brad Ingelsby is a stated work of fiction, replete with traditional disclaimer, intimation via the incorporation of a known geography in northern New Jersey magnifies the alarming conceptions. It has stirred controversy, with the flames fanned by a recent article in the NY Post.
Hence, whether disingenuously capitalizing on literally centuries of myth and fable or just coincidentally picking this specific landscape as his formidable wellspring of horror, director Cooper has certainly created a convenient and utterly evil enemy. Mr. Harrelson, who has limned his share of loose cannons and profligates, even outdoes himself this psychologically twisted go-round. His Harlan DeGroat is characteristically immoral.
Widening the socioeconomic pronouncements and lamentations of the story, his bad guy is juxtaposed with the sort of working class hero first identified in Michael Cimino’s “The Deer Hunter” (1978). Christian Bale is solidly credible as Russell Baze, a salt of the earth mill worker. He accepts his fate and culture. And, despite the gloomy circumstances confronting him in rural Braddock, Pennsylvania, he maintains an ethical creed.
However, his younger brother, Rodney, a veteran of four tours of Iraq urgently played by Casey Affleck, rails against his blue collar station with desperate angst. Whether due to some pang in his upbringing, posttraumatic stress or an inherently vexing devil, he’d rather try making a buck in backyard, illegal prizefighting of the bareknuckle variety.
This of course puts him in regular touch with all manner of unsavory characters, the first one we meet being Willem Dafoe’s small town bar owner, John Petty. A backroom fixer of such fights and gosh knows what other illicit activities, he is a study in contradiction.
He’d like to protect his star pugilist. But when Rodney’s fortunes are played out locally, he petitions his Fagin to arrange a fight in the Ramapough area. He’s heard it’s lucrative. Petty fervently warns him against it, although, success could mean the clearing of a debt to his scurrilous, boxing promoter counterpart, Harlan DeGroat. Rodney persists. Petty accedes. You don’t have to have a special gift for presentiment to know what this bodes.
Way earlier, before older bro Russell knew he would be seeking to settle a score with Harrelson’s evildoer, filmmaker Cooper inserts a glibly ominous chance meeting between the two when DeGroat carelessly bumps into him coming out of Petty’s lair. “You got a problem with me?” asks Russell. “I got a problem with everybody,” snarls DeGroat.
Curiously less inspired, though, is the patently sophomoric contrasts the director makes when Russell and his uncle, Red (Sam Shepard), go deer hunting. Merely a waste of time meant to underline some primordial postulation, it lengthens an already slow-moving movie that seems much longer than its 116 minutes.
Because the retributive tale is the sort of cop show fodder you can access on TV any given night and you know things are all just heading to the final showdown, it makes the doings even slower. But then this is a film of aura and characterization, the latter often wrought more than is necessary to the narrative.
Mr. Cooper wants to say something about America, but doesn’t seem to be able to put it in any cogent series of paragraphs. Or, maybe favors instead that we interpolate his albeit deeply felt abstractions about violence and where goeth the American Dream.
All of which makes me wonder if his feature length diatribe about mills closing, dwindling morality and a disconnect from the principles championed by the Founding Fathers is actually a muckrake hidden within fiction…its purpose also mysteriously elusive.
That Cooper expressly thumbs his nose at political correctness and essentially summons controversy further darkens the murk and misery that envelops this very disturbing update on the American experiment. Even reviewing it gives you the heebie-jeebies.
But, if its stark, naturalistic propounding is ugly, it is, to invoke an oxymoronic apology, a beautiful ugliness full of untidy and gnawing thoughts about what went wrong on the way to our ideally humane civilization. Thus, the best we can hope is that, by tossing “Out of the Furnace” into the crucible of introspection it invites, maybe the exercise will proffer a clue about the pervasive violence that confounds humankind’s better instincts.
“Out of the Furnace,” rated R, is a Relativity Media release directed by Scott Cooper and stars Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck. Running time: 116 minutes
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