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

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Who would want to be stuck in a dream for ten years?

Top 10 Films 2010-19
Now, you may glance down the following and blanche at its apparent Yankophile and populist tendencies. I wouldn’t seek to claim, however, that my tastes are particularly prone to treading on the coat tails of the highbrow. And there’s always the cahiers du cinema list if you want an appreciation of that ilk. As such, near misses for the decade, a decade that didn’t feature all that many features I’d rank as unqualified classics, included Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Tron: Legacy, The Tree of Life, The Guard and Edge of Tomorrow.

Don’t make me… hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m… hungry.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
(SPOILERS) It’s fortunate the bookends of Marvel’s Phase One are so sturdy, as the intervening four movies simply aren’t that special. Mediocre might be too strong a word (although at least one qualifies for that status), but they amountto a series of at-best-serviceable vehicles for characters rendered on screen with varying degrees of nervousness and second guessing. They also underline that, through the choices of directors, no one was bigger than the franchise, and no one had more authority than supremo Kevin Feige. Which meant there was integrity of overall vision, but sometimes a paucity of it in cinematic terms. The Incredible Hulk arrived off the back of what many considered a creative failure and commercial disappointment from Ang Lee five years earlier yet managed on just about every level to prove itself Hulk’s inferior. A movie characterised by playing it safe, it’s now very much the unloved orphan of the MCU, with a lead actor recast and a main c…

The only things I care about in this goddamn life are me and my drums... and you.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987)
(SPOILERS) The final entry in John Hughes’ teen cycle – after this he’d be away with the adults and moppets, and making an untold fortune from criminal slapstick – is also his most patently ridiculous, and I’m not forgetting Weird Science. Not because of its unconvincing class commentary, although that doesn’t help, but because only one of its teenage leads was under 25 when the movie came out, and none of them were Michael J Fox, 30-passing-for-15 types. That all counts towards its abundant charm, though; it’s almost as if Some Kind of Wonderful is intentionally coded towards the broader pool Hughes would subsequently plunge into (She’s Having a Baby was released the same year). Plus, its indie soundtrack is every bit as appealing as previous glories The Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

Mention of the latter highlights Some Kind of Wonderful’s greatest boast; it’s a gender swapped Pretty in Pink, only this time Hughes (and his directing surrogate Howard…