Scott Cooper may be busy with Antlers and A Head Full of Ghosts, but we want to talk about Out of the Furnace, his 2013 film. Out of the Furnace was an action-thriller starring Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Willem DaFoe, and Woody Harrelson.
The 2010 decade was an interesting time for Hollywood. The era was characterized by uber-budget Avengers-Esque explodoramas interspersed with quietly evocative dramatic affairs that every once in awhile garner the attention of the mainstream e.g. Whiplash, The Lobster. Here we’re going to look at something that falls squarely in-between. An action drama that for many slipped under the radar when it came out in 2013. Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace.
Largely dismissed by many critics at the time (the film earned a 54% score among critics on Rotten Tomatoes and even worse with audiences at 52%) could there be more to this film than meets the eye?
When viewed through the prism of Scott Cooper’s previous work, it’s perhaps easier to understand Out of the Furnace on its own terms. The actor-turned-director’s 2009 debut Crazy Heart was an uncompromising dissection of weary Americana and grizzled masculinity- both of which come to the end of their rope.
Cooper learned his craft from his friend and mentor the screen legend, Robert Duvall… which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about his filmography.
Out of the Furnace (which stars Christian Bale and Casey Affleck as war vet brothers in small-town America trying to rebuild (or destroy) their lives in the wake of a drink-driving incident. While Bale’s Russell Baze reflects on his prior sins, his brother Rodney appears Hell-bent on accelerating towards an early grave, making his money as a bare-knuckled boxer and running with a dangerous crowd including Woody Harrelson.
Out of the Furnace has an Outstanding Cast
On the surface, Out of the Furnace looks like an action film. The kind that has dwindled theatrically in the era of mega-budget CGI-driven, franchise-led blockbusters. And indeed, it’s very much the kind of film that rarely gets made. But rather than offering the frantic action-heavy crime thriller promised by the trailer, Out of the Furnace is really more of a leisurely character study with smatterings of action. In this respect, it owes more of a debt to the likes of Taxi Driver or The Deer Hunter (the latter of which is evoked with varying degrees of success throughout the film) than Ben Affleck’s The Town which won great acclaim a few years earlier.
The trailer’s mischaracterization of the film may have contributed to its meager box office- earning just shy of $8.4m internationally. Nonetheless, those who passed on the film missed out on some excellent performances from a thoroughly respectable cast.
Zoe Saldana brings yet another sterling performance to a thankless role (which she would most notably repeat in Live By Night in 2017). Bale and Affleck deliver multi-layered performances that veer between grunting machismo and genuine tenderness. Willem Dafoe brings depth and humanity to a character who would have been one-note in the hands of a lesser actor. And Woody Harrelson is clearly having the time of his life as the sinister moonshine chugging antagonist Harlan DeGroat.
Cooper’s time in front of the camera shows and he clearly cares about giving his performers room to breathe rather than hurrying them through their marks so they can get to the next action setpiece.
Impressive action and cinematography
When the action does come, it manages to both satisfy and bring gravitas, never bringing glorification or levity to acts of violence. The bare-knuckled boxing scene, in particular, is well-conceived and lacks the overblown sound effects that accompany most Hollywood slugfests. The way in which the frenetic fight is intercut with a quiet and somber character moment serves as a neat encapsulation of the film’s manifesto.
Another overlooked virtue of the film is its wonderful cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi. The film is shot entirely on 35mm and the panoramic vistas of a moribund American town have their own bittersweet beauty that enriches the drama.
Uninspired plot and lackluster pacing
If there’s one aspect of the film in which all critics are unified it’s the film’s unoriginal plot and an unfortunate lack of momentum. Again, the film’s leisurely pace is more jarring to those who set their expectations by the trailer.
There is Plenty To Learn From Out of the Furnace
There’s a great deal to love about Out of the Furnace, even if the film itself never quite becomes equal to the sum of its parts. Still, the film’s look, performances, and actions are worth the price of admission and the film is more laudable than history will probably remember. A 2010s action drama with a distinctly ‘70s feel with noble ambitions that don’t quite stick the landing.