Dear Out of the Furnace,
A film that colors outside the lines of its own design is never going to be everyone’s favorite. Somewhere between wondering at the novelty of the construction, or finding interest in the subversion of classic structure and plot, people are going to become restless for something familiar onto which they can hold. This is especially true if the entirety of the film isn’t novel enough to excite “game-changer” discussions. When the heart of a tale is rooted in a specific and time-worn narrative, the addition of location-specific verisimilitude and graceful character notes above and beyond those which are wholly necessary to advance the plot can be seen as artistically self-indulgent time-sinks.
However, given the right blend of tonal and narrative precision, all of these additions can create a special and affecting film that defies almost all logical explanation. This is the happy alchemical result of your story, Out of the Furnace. From humble beginnings your tale mounts to more wrenching extremes, pushing characters to breaking points that evoke surprise and despair with equal measure. What begins as a simple story is overtaken by the realities and uncertainties of life itself, bringing forth an operatic and epic scope which not only inflates the drama, but deepens the characters and our investment in them.
At the center of your story is Christian Bale as Russell Baze, a steelworker with a loving girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), ailing father, and a brother in the military. This brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), is a serial loser, constantly gambling with money he doesn’t have on the cusp of being stop-lossed for yet another tour of duty in Iraq. The two of them have the kind of easy, unspoken relationship that comes with living in one another’s orbits for their entire lives. Rodney makes a mistake, and Russell quietly cleans it up. However, when circumstances land Russell in jail and his hold on his life is removed, it isn’t long before the things he once had tenuously under his control begin to fall apart.
Your ostensible plot from here on out involves Russell once again trying to keep his brother safe, standing up for him and hoping to rescue him from the thrall and danger posed by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a backwoods gangster with a psychotic streak. And while yes, the whole of your narrative engine is driven by the clash between these two men, the real purpose and power of your story is located in the information and action between the lines of this simpler plot.
As much time as we spend on the story of Russell’s quest for revenge, we spend even more time simply observing the wreckage of his life. We see the way his own judgement and decisions have melded with the social and economic realities around him to create a kind of crucible into which his genuine goodness is tested. A lesser movie would exhonerate Russell of all of his sins, whereas you take the time to fully explicate his culpability in his own life’s failings. All the same, we never lose sight of him as a person, as a human being worthy of consideration and of understanding. The same is true of his brother Rodney, who is far more broken and rash in his decision-making, but is equally as fully-developed from a character standpoint. The scenes between Russell and Rodney are powerful and devastating in their unblinking examination of a brotherly bond rent by circumstance.
The ways in which Russell the steelworker and Rodney the soldier are tested and degraded through the movie could read as postmasculine deconstructions of a type of Hollywood man who will never be viable again, but the depth and care of your script and the actors’ craft elevates them out of a purely allegorical mire. Similarly, the relationship between Russell and Saldana’s Lena could act as further emasculation or commentary, but instead creates a moving insight into the manner in which people’s lives act in transient tandem. Their scenes together are powerful and moving, and so real and raw that they seem almost impossible.
There’s so much truth, so much to admire in your story, that it is a almost a bit sad when the final act kicks in, and we finally see the lengths to which the pressures and dishonors of life have pushed Russell. As Bale set on his path toward confrontation with Harlan – whom Harrelson plays with manic, vindictive relish – it is both a culmination of every theme and idea explored before, but also a Hollywood ending to what had previously been a very different feeling story.
Not to say that your climax doesn’t sing in a voice all its own. Few movies’ final moments have shaken me as much as yours, and I’ve rarely been more surprised to walk out of a film in a state of divine ambivalence. It took a while for my general sense of awe and affection to coalesce into outright love, but since that moment, you’ve not been far from my mind.
May we meet again,
Brian J. Roan