Dylan Moses Griffin

We Failed This Film: Scott Cooper’s ‘Out of the Furnace’

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We Failed This Film is a series about various films that simply didn’t get the love that they deserved upon initial release. For the eight entry, we’ll be revisiting Scott Cooper’s 2013 film Out of the Furnace in honor of his latest film, Black Mass, opening today.

How We Failed It

Today, director Scott Cooper’s latest film, Black Mass, will be released. It’s a chronicle of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger and his corrupt alliance with the FBI, and based on the positive reception it received at its Toronto International Film Festival debut, it feels safe to say that the film will have a good chance to succeed at the box office. It also feels safe to say that Scott Cooper will go three for three in delivering quality films throughout his young career. His previous film, Out of the Furnace, did not have the same chance to succeed and received little critical support.

Having been rewritten based on the original script by Brad Ingelsby, Cooper’s Out of the Furnace follows Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a blue collar worker at a local steel mill in Braddock, Pennsylvania. His younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) owes some money to local crimelord John Petty (Willem Dafoe) and Russell is doing his best to help out with his meager paycheck. He has a loving girlfriend in Lena (Zoe Saldana), and they contemplate having a kid. One night, as Russell drives home drunk after getting blown off by Rodney for a beer, he gets in a tragic car accident that takes a life. When he gets out of prison five years later, Lena has moved on with Chief Barnes (Forest Whitaker), his sick father has passed and his brother is immensely scarred from his four tours in Iraq. Rodney is now competing in bare-knuckle fights to pay off his gambling debts and goes missing after scheduling a brawl for Appalachian crime kingpin Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). The law is stalled by jurisdictional troubles, so he takes it into his own hands to track down DeGroat and exact revenge.

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Out of the Furnace had a modest $22 million budget, but the film only scored $5.2 million in its opening weekend showing in 2,101 theaters. It dropped out of public view fairly quickly after the disappointing open, and by its third weekend, Cooper’s film was only playing in 728 theaters. It’s domestic gross would top out at only $11 million, and foreign markets could only lift the worldwide total to $15 million. Out of the Furnace was a flop. Films like this (Hollywood funded but made with an auteur and independent drive) were already rare, and the flop didn’t help overturn the existing beliefs of major studios. Some of this can be attributed to the fact that the film was released while both Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire were swallowing up most of the available audiences during early December. The potential adult demographics for Out of the Furnace were stuck taking their kids to see Frozen.

Partly responsible for the failure was how the film was marketed. If you watch the trailer and then watch the film, you’re getting two strikingly different pieces of work. The Out of the Furnace trailer leans heavily on the revenge aspect, but when you watch the film as whole, that plotline doesn’t even begin until halfway through. Most of the time, when a film is much more than the trailer lets on, that’s a good thing. The car crash that sends Russell to prison is a complete surprise — an effective one at that — and works to further round out the character and the sharp decline of his personal life. Still, the surprise seemed to rub audiences and critics the wrong way. There’s an understandable frustration in being misled by a trailer, but this time it should have been seen as a plus rather than a minus.

Critics reacted venomously to Out of the Furnace, which contributed greatly to its quick burial. Many were caught up in their comparisons to Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, as Wesley Morris wrote “He (Scott Cooper) either quotes from or directly echoes other movies —The Deer HunterHeat. What is he trying to get at? Where is he trying to go?” Morris also noted that “You never believe that Cooper knows what the gorgeous shots of puffing smokestacks and empty mills mean, other than to signify blue-collar grit. You never believe he went beyond asking men like Bale, Affleck, and Harrelson, who acquit themselves ferociously, to represent male totems and movie clichés.”

Matt Zoller Seitz ripped into the film, writing “Had Out of the Furnace been willing to fully embrace its coincidences, overheated emotions and allegorical touches, it could have been one of the great Guy Movies of all time, a bro tragedy on the level of The Indian Runner, A Perfect Storm and, yes, The Deer Hunter (a film that wouldn’t be name-checked repeatedly in this review if Out of the Furnace didn’t strive to remind you of it, at one point brazenly lifting a key sequence involving a rifle, a deer and a moment of hesitation).”

There were a few who saw past The Deer Hunter comparisons though, with Scott Foundas writing “Perhaps because he was originally an actor himself (Gods and Generals, Get Low), Cooper seems to make actors feel safe and willing to expose themselves in ways they ordinarily might not, and time and again he takes scenes to places of unexpected emotional power…… But unlike many actor-directors, Cooper is an equally skilled visual storyteller, staging a SWAT team raid on DeGroat’s compound with an editorial sleight-of-hand borrowed from The Silence of the Lambs and always fostering a vivid sense of a place cut off from time and the world.”

Mark Kermode was a bit more understanding and gave a nuanced analysis on the cinematic meaning of The Deer Hunter callbacks, writing “Although the film opens in 2008, everything about Out of the Furnace harks back to the previous century, specifically to the American cinema of the 70s, which looms over the piece like a cloud of industrial smog. Cooper cites Altman, Cassavetes and Malick as key inspirations, but clearly it’s The Deer Hunter that casts the longest shadow – the bleak steel-town setting, the interpersonal tensions between taciturn men, the battle-scarred veteran now lost in the world of a deadly sport (Appalachian scrapping rather than Russian roulette). There’s even a hunting sequence in which Christian Bale sights, lines up and then merely admires a stately beast, not so much a nod as a kneel to Michael Cimino’s template… Meanwhile cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi shoots ‘entirely and proudly’ on 35mm Kodak film, enriching the retro feel with a handsome widescreen image that oozes aching nostalgia. The war may have changed from Vietnam to Iraq but the manly battles remain the same.”

The Deer Hunter nods are proudly there and Out of the Furnace does have more than one thing in common with Cimino’s film — a character battling PTSD, a rural working class town, and even a scene where characters go deer hunting — but it’s still a cinematic work that firmly stands on its own.

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Why It’s Great

Christian Bale gives one of his most understated performances as Russell Baze. Typically, his performances are what you could call “sweaty,” as his commitment to the craft is always impressive, but in Out of the Furnace, his fierce investment is reserved. Bale adopts a convincing regional Pittsburgh accent, but he doesn’t do much talking. Of course, he doesn’t have to either, since one learns plenty about him from the subtle and lived-in expressions. There’s a weariness to how Bale carries himself in this film, as Russell is a man fully aware of his entrapment by the town’s economical conditions, and to a certain degree, he is content. But still, life seems to kick him further down whether he deserves it or not. This sort of spiritual wear and tear is manifested in each scene through Bale.

Zoe Saldana takes a thankless sort of role as Lena and elevates it with heart-wrenching honesty. There’s a scene where Russell goes to see her after his incarceration and they talk on a bridge. He communicates that he wants to work out a relationship even though she’s with Chief Barnes. Lena reveals that she’s pregnant with Barnes’ baby, and that she can’t be with Russell, who fights through tears to convey his happiness for Lena (and she begins crying too). Describing the scene makes it seem like a checklist of stereotypes and familiar story beats, but the moment is constructed and performed with such aching honesty by Bale and Saldana. It’s generically written yet utterly authentic and devastating; Bale and Saldana bring truth to the emotional history of their characters.

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Casey Affleck is heartbreaking to watch as Rodney succumbs to the tragic effects of PTSD. His eyes are wells of agony that continue to swell up as he goes on, and there’s a youthful innocence that naturally exists in Affleck, which succinctly complements his character. The fury that boils inside of Rodney is convincing through Affleck’s deteriorated spirit, while the chemistry between he and co-star Bale is incredibly believable. The brothers have been beaten down by the current state of America, but only Russell has accepted that there’s nothing he can do aside from being content.

Right from the opening scene, Woody Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat immediately stands out as a real threat. Upon a senseless beating at a drive-in theater, it’s clear that this guy is dangerous, and Harrelson rides the terrifying momentum through the rest of the film. He’s threatening even with a lollipop in his mouth. Every line of dialogue from Harrelson is coated with menace, and before any direct involvement with Rodney and Harlan takes place, Russell runs into the menacing figure at John Petty’s bar, but he doesn’t realize who the man is upon disrupting a meeting. Before leaving, Harlan argues with Russell and notes that “I got a problem with everybody.” Right then, Harrelson takes the simplest line and drives it home. The man has tattoos on his hands that read “Fuck” and “You” — a nice little nod to The Night of the Hunter. It’s Harrelson at his most menacing in a truly iconic and unforgettable villain performance.

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Cooper assembles an incredibly impressive ensemble cast, all of whom deliver memorable performances no matter how small the role. Willem Dafoe toes an authentic line between sleaze and sympathy as John Petty, the face of local organized crime in Braddock. Forest Whitaker takes a thankless role as Chief Barnes and injects authenticity and authority into it, and to be honest, all Sam Shepard has to do is show up to elevate any role. Talents like Tom Bower and Boyd Holbrook memorably fill out the supporting cast.

Out of the Furance is a grand thematic epic of American filmmaking. The presence of the economic collapse is felt at every turn as every building is decayed to a certain degree. Each character is feeling the effects. When Harlan meets Rodney, he asks him why he wants to fight. Rodney simply replies that he needs the money. Harlan responds with “Hmm…yeah. We all need money.” In one early scene, a background TV shows Senator Ted Kennedy giving a speech at an Obama rally, and it’s no coincidence that when Russell comes back from jail, he tries to repaint and repair the structure of his father’s dilapidated house. It’s an effort to improve a life that has already been destroyed and cannot be repaired. Everything around Russell serves as a reminder that he cannot overcome this life, economic disparity hanging on each frame like a ghost. The shots of this rural setting are striking and say much about the crumbling economic state of rust-belt America. During the climax, Russell pursues Harlan through the abandoned steel mill, as Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi fittingly frame the setting like a thematic graveyard, the steel structures standing as tombstones of the working class.

Cooper developed a knack for real-world authenticity in Crazy Heart — his directorial debut — and amplifies it further in Out of the Furnace by creating a much bigger and grander film. This time, he’s playing with economic themes both macro and micro, and he conveys that through the strong character work in the script. The film spends the first hour developing the characters’ circumstances to better understand why Russell would be driven to revenge. It shows how he incrementally loses his world, and as a result, the act of revenge almost doubles as an act of release against all his frustrations.

Out of the Furnace is about fate, family and consequence, and the final shot encapsulates this concept. Russell sits alone in his house, contemplating what has just happened as “Release” by Pearl Jam starts playing…then fade to black. The sound of Eddie Vedder’s wailing of the lyrics has never felt more appropriate with a film and a character. Out of the Furnace could have easily ended on an admirable and thematic note with Bale having completed the revenge, however the extension takes it an ambitious step further. With Bale’s presence in the final shot, it’s hard to tell if there is solace, grief or just more weariness in Russell. With Bale’s stoic posture, he plays it as a possible combination of all three.

Going Forward

Out of the Furnace feels appropriate for a Criterion release, but ultimately, the best thing for one to make reparations would be to purchase a ticket for Black Mass. I haven’t seen the film at the time of this article’s submission, but it’s easy to see that Scott Cooper has earned my respect. The hope is that Black Mass will do well, and those who like the film will feel compelled to go back and watch Out of the Furnace and Crazy Heart. If Cooper’s latest film does succeed, it will hopefully enable him to direct more films like Out of the Furnace, as studio-funded American character thrillers were once prevalent in the 1970s, but they are all too rare in the present.

Dylan Moses Griffin has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

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