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Out of the Furnace: A New West Thriller?

December 7, 2013

Out of the Furnace is a movie that I was excited for largely because, like many thrillers, it has a fantastic trailer. I mean really, just watch that trailer for a few minutes and try to tell me that you don’t want to watch that movie. What truly makes it is of course the extremely haunting cover of “Heart of Gold,” that plays in the background of these fantastic shots.

The thing is though that like all thrillers, this movie actually has a very slow methodical pace and all the trailer shows you are the intense moments that are stretched out over the course of the film. The question when watching a movie like this is whether or not the rest of the movie is able to effectively deliver these moments of extreme intensity.

I would say that, on the whole, Out of the Furnace does support itself and pulls us into into its story and world very well.

We’re slowly brought into the complex life of Russel (Bale) and Rodney (Affleck) Baze, a pair of brothers from the Pennsylvania rust belt. Russel is a responsible man with a steady job at the local steel mill who tirelessly works to help his dying father and troublesome brother. Meanwhile, Rodney, in the midst of multiple tours to Iraq is slowly cracking, uncertain of himself and his direction in life. Through Rodney we’re introduced to the seedy underbelly of the Appalachia region, namely the bareknuckle boxing ring operated by John Petty (Dafoe) and Curtis DeGroat (Harrelson).

Petty, indebted to DeGroat, offers Rodney, who is indebted to Petty, as a fighter who will be able to take a convincing fall in the ring and allow DeGroat to make a large amount of money. All the while, Russel struggles with his own personal problems involving his ex-girlfriend Lena (Saldana), the passing of his father, and what he wants out of life himself. DeGroat ends up killing Petty over his substantial debts, while Rodney goes missing. Russel very quickly finds himself at a crossroads, having to choose between vengeance or letting the, admittedly ineffectual, police do their jobs.

It’s a surprisingly simple but powerful narrative with a few interesting twists that help to develop the story and pull us deeper into its world. They manage to pull off the rural Appalachian setting without falling into stereotypes associated with Southern Hill Folk, most likely because the film is set in Pennsylvania and New Jersey allowing the characters to be familiar yet just different enough. The hills and the rust belt are as much characters in this film as everyone else and that really helps to embrace Russel as a hero who must seek vengeance. Since the law can’t touch the hills, and because his relatively good life is still so precarious, the only solution is to take justice into your own hands as part of this grand American and Appalachian tradition.

It’s powerful, it’s interesting, and the star studded cast will knock your socks off.

That all being said, the movie does have a sometimes agonizing pace, almost a little too slow and a little too methodical. There is some shallow symbolism that might have been deeper if it weren’t so drawn out by the camera lingering for too long in certain shots. Zoe Saldana, despite being an important part of the main character’s life, is pretty much on screen for a total of five to ten minutes which makes this movie quite the sausage fest. Speaking of sausage, this movie is a little fatty. There are definitely some scenes that could have been shortened or maybe even cut.

In spite of this array of problems, Bale, Affleck, and Harrelson make this movie so much better. The supporting cast are also phenomenal, particularly Dafoe who in my opinion actually manages to play a very likable criminal. On top of all this the setting, tone, and general narrative are all pitch perfect.

Ultimately, Out of the Furnace will give you something to think about but it won’t make you think too hard and it will reward your patience during the slow builds with some hard-hitting action.

 

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Chariots, chariots, superfans!

 

There are a few things that this movie actually gets me thinking about but first I just want to talk about one of the only decisions that really bothered me when I watched this film. As I said above, this movie definitely has problems, expectations was definitely one of them, but I would say despite not quite meeting those expectations the film still succeeds and is still worth watching. However, there’s one thing that I really didn’t like.

The movie is bookended by two scenes. They’re linked to the main film by fades and I thought that was cool since they’re a part of this narrative but they’re also distinct from it. The first one features Harrelson’s character at a drive-in theater with a woman, and really showcases just how foul of a human being he really is. It just gives us this perfect sense of how much like a savage animal he is, setting the tone for his part in the story. The last scene of this film ultimately confused me.

To get in to why I found it confusing, I feel the need to talk about the thriller genre. So, thriller is probably one of the broadest genres in the history of human media, because it’s not really describing the themes or body of work but how you present it. Thrillers are about tension, they’re about that slow build to these explosive moments, twists, and reveals. They’re often a little convoluted, or maybe even contrived, but you can generally forgive them that because they’re so exciting. The problem with ‘thrillers’ is that they often need another genre to narrow down what exactly it is we’re watching/reading.

While mechanically, Out of the Furnace is a thriller, I find that at its heart, its themes and characters are much more a part of what some would call the New West. The New West is a genre that stems from the sort of tropes that we see in stories from Westerns being utilized in the modern day. They can be as simple as just putting a cowboy cop in a modern setting (in a show like Justified) or they can be much more complex and deal with questions about freedom and justice in modernity. Like Out of the Furnace does. Given the modern setting, these no longer have to take place in “The West” but really any rural area, and Appalachia with its history of close knit communities and violence is ripe for New West tales.

Now this is definitely a movie that works from these deep-rooted American notions of independence and justice. Russel is a man searching for redemption that while trying to set his down-on-his-luck brother onto a noble hard working path at the steel mill, finds himself put in a situation where he has to fight an outright evil character that can’t be touched by the law. Christian Bale might never wear a white hat in this role, but he should probably be wearing a gray or black one. The people who are supposed to help him in this modern era, the police, are constrained by their own system so he has to step up. Yet, at the end of this whole film, he is faced with a choice between taking the vengeance that is rightfully his or stepping aside and letting modern justice take place.

This is made obnoxiously clear when Whitaker’s police chief character is literally yelling at Bale, “Let me make this right,” as he takes the final shot that kills Harrelson. It’s an amazing and fantastic scene, beautifully composed, and unabashedly upholding the notion of the New West. Russel Baze plants his standard of freedom despite knowing that it will ultimately be taken from him. He will be able to comfort himself with the knowledge that he vanquished not just an evil man, but an evil man who wronged him and his kin.

The film fades to black.

Then it comes back in with a shot of Bale just sitting at his kitchen table, draped in shadows, for about fifteen seconds. When the previous scene ended I was kind of left wondering what would happen to Russel, because he clearly just committed textbook murder. Granted, DeGroat is an evil man but it was still murder and this is not a happy story. Yet, there he is, sitting in his kitchen. Perhaps I’m taking it too literally and this final shot is supposed to be something about how his life is gone now that he has no deeply personal relationships, but why wouldn’t that have been possible by showing him in a prison cell? Does he just not go to jail? The problem with showing me an ambiguous scene when you could have just ended the story where it clearly ends (with a nice ambiguous open ending) is that now I’m left wondering why the hell you are showing me this. Left without any sort of clear indication besides rampant wild speculation, I can only shout, “Reveal your secrets to me!”

I was behind this movie one hundred percent except for that final shot, which continues to nag at me, and most likely will continue to nag at me until I literally tackle Scott Cooper while yelling my question.

I could go on about how film expectations, especially the false ones explicitly created by thriller trailers, are very volatile and as likely to lead a film to ruin as they are to put butts in seats, but ultimately that’s a discussion for another day.

At the end of all of this, I would say that Out of the Furnace is worth watching.

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