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Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013 12:01 am

Bale and Harrelson formidable duo in Furnace

Woody Harrelson as Curtis DeGroat and Christian Bale as Russell Baze in Out of the Furnace.
PHOTO CREDIT BY KERRY HAYES.

 

While writing his follow-up to 2009’s Crazy Heart, director Scott Cooper had Christian Bale in mind for the lead role in what was to become Out of the Furnace. He even went so far as delaying production until a window opened up in the actor’s schedule. Cooper should be rewarded for his vision and tenacity. Bale almost singlehandedly saves this movie which, though noble in intent, suffers from being far too derivative. No doubt, it is a very well-made film containing arresting images of beauty and despair, as well as performances that require its strong cast to cut to the core of their own, as well as their character’s emotions. However, once the artifice is peeled away, Furnace reveals itself to be just a simple tale of revenge and self-destruction.

Bale is Russell Baze, a blue-collar worker at a steel mill in a town that’s on its deathbed. There’s little margin for error where survival is concerned. He lives in poverty, barely making ends meet while trying to pay off his brother Rodney’s (Casey Affleck) debt to John Petty (Willem Dafoe), a local businessman who’s more than a bit shady. Still, Baze finds solace with Lena (Zoe Saldana), the one silver lining in his life of grit and smog. However, one tragedy after another befalls him. He winds up doing time on a manslaughter charge, has his girlfriend leave him while he’s away and upon his return finds that Rodney has gotten involved with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) a truly dangerous character that runs a bare-knuckle fighting ring. When his brother goes missing not long after, Baze expects the worse and ends up searching for him when local law enforcement, led by Lena’s current beau, Sheriff Barnes (Forest Whitaker), proves ineffective.

Shot in various parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Cooper and his cinematographer, Masanobu Takayanagi, do a marvelous job of capturing these locales, at turns beautiful, drab and oppressive. So much of what takes place in the town where Baze lives has a washed-out look to it, as though all of the life has been drained from the place, as well as its inhabitants. The mills are presented as hulking monstrosities that produce nothing but bitterness for those who enter. While the wilderness outside the town is seen as providing a brief respite from the character’s troubles, this environment surrounding the mills contains its own brand of danger. Also of note are the many bridges in the film, all of them rusted and/or in disrepair, suggesting that they only lead to another trap for these people to fall into.

It’s on one of the bridges that one of the year’s best scenes takes place. Baze and Lena talk for the first time since his release from prison; they each try to catch up on lost time yet know that their chance at happiness has passed. Bale and Saldana are excellent here, each conveying the heartbreak their characters are experiencing with a nobility and truth that transcends the medium. With the exception of Tom Hanks’ final moments in Captain Phillips, I’d be hard-pressed to cite a more moving, honest moment presented on screen this year than this.

The cast is uniformly good, and I think what you have here is a wealth of talent, the sum total of which ends up challenging the individuals that make it up. Affleck has never been better as the frustrated veteran who feels trapped and abandoned, while Harrelson proves once more that he’s one of our most fearless and unpredictable actors, dominating the screen whenever he appears as the very embodiment of rage. But it’s Bale who keeps everything grounded, bringing to life this kind heart in a cruel world that’s forced to compromise his morality in order to survive. The actor and his cast mates all bring their A-game to the production and making Furnace a gripping exercise, despite the fact that there’s very little original at its core.  
Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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