Arts Review, Movies
Starring: Christian Bale (Russell Baze), Casey Affleck (Rodney Baze, Jr.), Woody Harrelson (Curtis DeGroat), Zoe Saldana (Lena Warren), Forrest Whitaker (Wesley Barnes), Willem Dafoe (John Petty), Sam Shepard (Red)
Scott Cooper, who broke into the film world as an actor, guided Jeff Bridges to his long-awaited Academy Award in his directorial debut Crazy Heart. For this, his second effort, he’s assembled a dream cast: Christian Bale and Casey Affleck as working class brothers in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt; Sam Shepard as their taciturn uncle; Woody Harrelson as a ruthless lowlife hillbilly; Forrest Whitaker as the local cop; Zoe Saldana as the woman who Bale and Whitaker both love and Willem Dafoe as a small town gangster.
Rust Belt noir; family melodrama; an American tragedy
Russell Baze (Bale) is a salt of the earth steelworker, dedicated to his girlfriend Lena (Saldana) and family: brother Rodney, Jr., an Iraq war vet (Affleck), their dying father, Rodney, Sr. and uncle Red (Shepard). After drinking with local gangster John Petty (Dafoe) at his saloon, Russell crashes his car into another vehicle, killing a boy. Sent to prison for manslaughter, he loses his father and girlfriend before attaining his release.
Still intent on keeping his nose clean, Russell accepts that Lena has now taken up with local cop Barnes (Whitaker). He goes back to work at the mill, just as his dad before him. Rodney Jr. wants more—he’s served his time in the military and wants a better life but nothing goes his way. Finally, he forces Petty to set up a bare knuckle fight in West Virginia, in a lawless region run by hillbillies like DeGroat (Harrelson). Rodney, Jr. has to take a dive so that DeGroat can make more money but even that pricey humiliation isn’t enough to get Petty and his fighter safely back to Pennsylvania.
Finally pushed into taking action, Russell seeks vengeance, first with Red and later by himself.
Casey Affleck is excellent as the doomed Rodney, Jr and he’s matched by Bale. Both are playing the kind of character made famous by Brando in the ‘50s: a seething cauldron of emotions being held back by the conventional times in which they live. Shepard, a past master at this macho-heroic role, is perfectly cast as the uncle. Harrelson has become iconic as an over-the-top crazy man and he predictably and quite entertainingly chews up the Rust Belt scenery in this film. Sadly, Saldana and Whitaker aren’t given much to do but they do look suitably intense or melancholic when required.
Scott Cooper is clearly interested in working class heroes. In Crazy Heart, he evoked the tawdry environment lived by a boozy country singer. Now, he’s etched out the harsh beauty of Pennsylvania and the Ozarks: gorgeous hills and valleys, forests and rivers and the decaying charm of mill towns that are on the verge of closing.
Cooper’s first two films are cut from the same American blue jean pattern. His theme is obvious. He wants to chronicle the decline of the American dream as the economy collapses and foreign respect for the U.S. is receding, while still celebrating working class heroism.
Out of the Furnace features riveting performances and splendid cinematography. But, just as in Crazy Heart, Scott Cooper’s film is archly melodramatic, filled with too many predictable scenes and characters. If you’re fascinated by the American Dream and love the lead actors, this is the film for you. If not, it’ll look just as good on DVD or pay TV quite soon.