Skip to main content

You let me worry about who’s the nasty son-of-a-bitch.

Out of the Furnace
(2013)

Scott Cooper’s sophomore film is a handsomely mounted, well-performed revenge drama with pretensions of being about “stuff”. You know, meaty stuff, like man’s propensity for violence and the disintegration of local economies. As good as it is in moments – a scene here or there – it fails to resonate on a broader level. As if merely invoking thematic content and having it stretch in bloated fashion across the Pennsylvania landscape, accompanied by Pearl Jam, is enough. It isn’t and the result is distinctly underwhelming.


Cooper wrote the screenplay with Brad Ingelsby, and he takes in a range of tropes, all of them over-familiar. Christian Bale is Russell Baze, a blue-collar steel worker who serves a stretch for vehicular homicide (he was over the limit at the wheel). While he is inside his Iraq veteran younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) has resorted to bareknuckle boxing, in consort with John Petty (Willem Dafoe) a loan shark and wheeler-dealer. The two of them go missing after Rodney persuades Petty to get him a fight in New Jersey. This is Deliverance territory, where even the police fear to tread, which leads Russell to make his own justice.


We’ve seen all this before, but rarely with quite such sombre and self-important posturing. Yet none of it feels quite right. Elements are plucked out of the air because they sound dramatic, rather than because they add up. It’s an easy dramatic device to feature an unstable soldier in a movie, one who can’t handle the things he saw. And it’s an even easier one to have a psychotic backwater loon who’ll kill you as soon as give the time of day. Affleck, master of mumblecore delivery, gives it his best shot but he’s miscast as a super bruiser. We just don’t believe he’s that tough. In contrast, Woody Harrelson steals the picture as Harlan DeGroat, the crazy drug dealer who force-feeds his date a hotdog during the opening drive-in scene. We’ve seen Harrelson do crazy-eyed lunacy before, but here he manages to out-intimidate himself. It’s a rivetting performance and the picture only really kicks into gear when he’s around.


Furnace is littered with good actors in small, unrewarding roles. Dafoe is ever watchable. Forrest Whitaker must have wanted to work with Cooper badly, as he hardly needed to show up for the non-plum part of the local police chief. Likewise Zoe Saldana as Russell’s ex. Then there’s the great Sam Shepard as the Russells’ Uncle Gerald. Bale is typically sincere and determined, but there really isn’t much to get worked up about in Russell. He’s well-meaning (paying off his brother’s debts), makes mistakes (getting over-the-limit, not thinking through the consequences of luring DeGroat into his trap), but is stoically dull.


Like Killing them Softly, the film picks up at Obama’s first election, although this appears only as a means to gauge how long Russell is in stir for (that said, I’m not clear if this is set mainly in the present day; I don’t think we find out how long he’s incarcerated). Cooper seems to want to make all sorts of commentaries, but cant disguise how this breaks down into a simple revenge thriller with some fairly unlikely developments along the way. He makes heavy weather of certain sequences too. The intercutting between Russell and Gerald going hunting (invoking The Deer Hunter) and Rodney preparing for his fight is excruciating and banal. There’s the occasional inspired moment – a SWAT team approaching through a quiet field – but they are few and far between. Whatever themes Cooper is aiming for, he misses. There’s no discernable debate on the rights and wrongs of Russell’s violence path, or no more than in your average thriller.


Indeed, Furnace takes its merry time to reach a conclusion, and one can’t help but wonder what it was all in aid of. Cooper is keen on verisimilitude in performance and location, but his plotting actively works against this. It is neither weighty not insightful, and some elements, such as the PTSD, are so obvious as to be near glib. Cooper’s languorous filmmaking style suited Crazy Heart, but here he comes unstuck. Out of the Furnace is neither fish nor fowl, not smart enough to reach for some sort of hallowed Winter’s Bone status and not nearly hokum enough to have a good time with its revenge plot (Harrelson at least knows he is in the latter movie). This doesn’t bode well for Cooper’s next, Black Mass with Johnny Deep Whitey Bulger. This is one of those movies few will remember; neither especially good nor bad, it is only the casting that sustains interest. Still, if you have a rep as an actor’s director (Cooper is also an a thesp) you’ll probably attract names no matter how mediocre the results are.


**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.