Towns like Braddock, Pennsylvania exist all over America. The small, dirty towns that flourish or falter based on the strength of the local mill that employs most of the town’s citizens. Braddock, as portrayed in the new domestic thriller, Out of the Furnace, is the kind of town people don’t escape from. You’re born with a broken heart and develop into a shattered dream. All you can do is try to survive contently.
Things happen. Bad things. Tragic things. Time is served and money is owed. We meet more people from Braddock. People like the sleazy but honest John Petty (Willem Dafoe), who’s trying to make good on his own debt by having Rodney work off his own debt. John’s debt is owed to Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) a tweeked-out meth head psychopath who runs a bare-knuckle boxing circle in (very) rural New Jersey. Shortly into the film, for reasons I won’t fully explain, all of these characters become entangled through of series of unfortunate events. But these events aren’t random. They’re chosen. As in, the characters are aware of the risks they take, but take them anyway.
And here is Out of the Furnace’s biggest selling point. More than the many fine performances, more than the film’s uncannily ability to so accurately characterize a time and a place, Out of the Furnace succeeds best as a rust and bone morality tale of false hope. These characters dare to dream that they can have a better life. More money. Children. Happiness. They spin themselves in a web that’s impossible to untangle, but it is utterly thrilling to watch them try.
Woody Harrelson is a master of playing likeable men who find themselves in unlikeable circumstances. Which is what makes DeGroat so compelling. There isn’t a shred of amiability in DeGroat. He’s a monster looking to inflict as much pain as possible. It’s a remarkable departure for Harrelson, and the actor does wonders with it. Bale and Affleck also find themselves playing against type. Bale is the more fiery actor of the two, equipped with an intensity and commanding presence that has garnered him countless acclaim. But his Russell is different. He thinks. He listens. He talks only when he needs to, and moves only when he has to. It’s a quiet, captivating performance unlike any we’ve seen from Bale. Essentially, it’s Affleck who has the Christian Bale role in the film. The angry, screaming, furious man America gave up on. Affleck literally shook me up in this film. I haven’t been able to get him out of my mind.
Scott Cooper, who co-wrote and directed Out of the Furnace, knows these kinds of towns, and their people, very well. That was evident in his first feature, Crazy Heart, in which we followed a shit kicking country music star around rural America as he slowly fell deeper into his own drunken hopelessness. I enjoyed Cooper’s subtle take on a flawed America in Crazy Heart, but I’m in love with his more bold approach in Out of the Furnace. This is a technically restrained film full of relentlessly angry people. I knew the men (and few women) of Braddock so well as imagined through Cooper’s lens. I wanted to reach out and help them in anyway that I could, but, of course, I was forced to sit back and watch them crumble.
Out of the Furnace is one of the most gut wrenching experiences I’ve had at the movies this year. Many will disagree. Many will be unmoved and possibly angered by the film’s message and discouraging characters. Me? I was never mad at the people of Braddock, only infuriated by the circumstances they found themselves in. Who am I to judge how a person handles an unimaginable situation? I only choose to sit back and let the film fly. A-