Drama Film Review

From the Ashes of a Film Review: Out of the Furnace

November 26, 2013Ben MK

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Men of steel

As the saying goes, "Out of the furnace and into the fire". It would be all too easy to assume that this is all that this film's title is alluding to, but doing so would be a gross oversimplification. In 2008, an in-depth article titled "Braddock, Pennsylvania Out of the Furnace and into the Fire" was published, focusing the nation's attention on the small town. Once home to the workforce of the nearby steel mills, Braddock was economically devastated by the Steel Crisis of the 1980s. Now the poster child for economic injustice and inequality in America, it's no coincidence that the film, Out of the Furnace -- which tells of the hardships of one blue-collar American family -- is set there.

Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works double shifts at the local steel mill, toiling to earn a modest income that he uses to help his ailing father; Rodney Baze Sr. has spent years working in the same mill and is now dying from it. Meanwhile, Russell's brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), a US soldier back from Iraq, spends most of his time placing bets with the local bookie, John Petty (Willem Dafoe) -- bets that Russell usually ends up settling on his behalf. Although life is hard, Russell is generally content; at least he has his girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), by his side. But all of that changes one fateful night, when Russell is involved in a deadly car accident, resulting in his incarceration. So begins a series of events that sees the Baze family's luck go from bad to worse. Eventually, Rodney's gambling escalates to a point that sees him participating in underground fight clubs, and he becomes entwined with a vicious and psychopathic drug dealer named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). When things finally come to a head and Rodney disappears, Russell is forced to take action and find justice for his brother -- as the only man who dares take a stand against DeGroat.

While the film maintains its focus on the story of the Baze brothers, director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) doesn't shy away from showing us the dismal and stark reality of life in Braddock. In fact, the town is as much a character in the film as any of the actors are. With much of the filming done on location -- and Braddock's skeletal architectural landscape featuring prominently -- it brings a haunting realism to the film, lending an almost cinéma vérité quality to its scenes and allowing much of the drama to flow through subtext.

The cast, which also includes such Hollywood heavyweights as Sam Shepard and Forest Whitaker, is nothing short of top tier. However, Saldana, Bale and Affleck should be singled out; they deserve all the accolades coming their way for bringing credibility, dimensionality and emotional gravitas to their roles. It's certainly an ensemble effort, but the relationships between Lena/Russell and Russell/Rodney are the beating heart of the film. As pairs who share unbreakable, yet tragic, bonds, the raw emotions that the trio bring to their scenes are as compelling as they are emotionally wrenching.

The Bottom Line

With the shadow of real life tragedy looming large in the background, Out of the Furnace paints a grim portrait of small town life in America's Heartland. But born out of the injustice and inequality against which it is set is a story of the true meaning of family. It's a film that shows that sometimes there are no happy endings and echoes the sentiment that it's always darkest before dawn; but for the few that are brave enough to seek it out, there can at least be closure. [★★★½]

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