Wednesday, December 11, 2013

'Out of the Furnace' Burns Brightly

I didn't know this, but apparently the weekend after Thanksgiving is not particularly productive for the North American box office. Since it's usually such a slow weekend, movies released at this time tend to be few, with maybe one new release opening up and often failing to garner an audience when it does. Two years ago, it was the terrible The Warriors Way that was sacrificed to an early grave, while last year saw the critically praised but commercially panned Killing Them Softly (which I also consummately hated) diffuse all potential Oscar talk for Brad Pitt in 2012. This year, the sole national release for this weekend is Out of the Furnace, Scott Cooper's directorial followup to 2009's well-received country-singing Crazy Heart, a title many considered a decent pick for Academy Award potential. Does this mediocre release date (which guaranteed an early box office finish behind Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) mean that the studios and their celebrity producers (Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio, who had originally been labeled as director and actor) believe their film doesn't deserve that much faith?

A bit of fun before all the drama begins.
Out of the Furnace is a revenge thriller that pits Russell Baze (Academy Award-winner Christian Bale) - a normal, factory-working good man in Braddock, PA - against lowlife criminal and overall scumbag Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), an Appalachian hustler who is suspected of being responsible for the disappearance of Russell's brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). With there being only so much the law can do, Russell feels he is the only man who can find and punish the man responsible for separating him from his brother.
Gladiator gets a sequel 2000 years in the making.
This movie has two major strengths going for it: Cooper, and his amazing cast. As a sophomore director, Cooper has a lot to live up to, especially with praise for Crazy Heart being as great as it was. He has a natural aptitude for storytelling, and that's especially good when the story he actually tells differs in respects to what the trailers had brought a potential audience to expect. Now, it's not that the trailers lied, per se, but they do diverge quite widely from the tale Cooper actually brings to us. Considering how many trailers essentially give away the story of their respective titles, that Out of the Furnace surprises us with its twists and turns is just as much a key to victory as Cooper's overall talent. The director has a talent for capturing the perfect shot, and the imagery he evokes is that of a big-budget Winter's Bone due to its Appalachian, Rust Belt locale and depressed economic setting. He makes great use of his locale to establish his story (which he re-wrote from a script by Brad Ingelsby), and despite the dangers of a slow-burning plot (Killing Them Softly was terribly slow, to the point of boredom), the movie is never dull, keeping you entranced as you anxiously wait to see what happens next.
He's really going for that Oscar this year.
And as I mentioned, Cooper gets a huge boost from his all-star cast, especially concerning the (surprisingly limited) interplay between Bale and Harrelson. Harrelson's Harlan is a monster from the word go, and the film more than establishes him as a dangerous, evil human being (and setting the foundations for Best Supporting Actor nods, perhaps), more than worthy for a movie of this style. Meanwhile, Bale's Russell takes a lot longer to set up, while never losing sight of the idea that he is the epitome of good. That building of his character was necessary to keep Russell from stagnating, and despite some threats of cliche, Bale reminds everybody of the monumental talent he really is. Affleck meanwhile quietly puts forth one of his best performances, that of a youth troubled by war and falling into the trappings of debt and depression. Affleck has always been a good (sometimes better than big brother Ben) actor, but his turn in Furnace easily takes the top prize. Zoe Saldana also excels, though I found myself wishing they'd used her a bit more. After all, there's no doubt in my mind that one day this young talent will earn Academy Award nominations, and perhaps walk away with one as well. This was an excellent display of her skills (the scene with Bale on the footbridge is emotionally devastating) and she's absolutely destined for bigger things than Star Trek and Colombiana. Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard and Willem Dafoe round out a fully engaging cast, one that really makes the best of their given material.
Spoiler: this is the best scene in the movie.
And that's a good thing, because the material they have to work with is... "meh". Cooper supposedly had his own upbringing in Appalachia in mind when he was retooling Ingelsby's screenplay, but the result is a LOT of universally cliched ideas. The major and minor themes - poverty, frontier justice, social treatment of combat veterans, legal jurisdiction battles, loneliness, emotional trauma, brotherhood - have been done before, in essentially this same format. No matter how good the actors are (and they are spectacular!), Cooper can't quite compel his movie to be more unique than it actually is. There were also some questionable decisions made for the final cut, as some scenes ran a little over-long and contained some questionably redundant material (I mean seriously, how many times to we need to be reminded that Russell is a good man?). But while the director really should have let someone else come in and tinker with his relatively disappointing script, he's a talented-enough artist to somewhat overcome those hurdles, while trusting his cast to do the heavy lifting in a tale that doesn't lack for suspense and authentic emotional toil.
Now, who's up for playing Old Yeller?
There's a surprisingly long setup, as the audience soon becomes fully accustomed to the slow burn that takes up the first 90 minutes of Out of the Furnace. That makes the swift final act a complete surprise, as Cooper had perfectly positioned his pawns for a quick checkmate. But despite feeling a little rushed, the movie actually benefits from this change of pace, and it actually makes for quite the exciting and appropriate conclusion to the tale. Still, it (and his minor, newbie-level mistakes) keeps his final product from becoming the awards juggernaut it ABSOLUTELY had the potential to be. Out of the Furnace is still tons better than the fare that usually comes out the weekend after Thanksgiving, and if you find yourself with a couple of hours to spend before the year's end, you can do a whole lot worse than giving Scott Cooper's latest effort a shot. Great actors, an up-and-coming director and not one boring moment make for a couple hours of sheer quality entertainment.

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