The film follows a pair of brothers Russell and Rodney (played by Bale and Casey Affleck, respectively) going in different directions through life. Russell leads a simple life following in the footsteps of his father, Rodney joins the army and lives for a bit more excitement, but he is quickly getting in too deep with the wrong crowd when Russell gets sent to prison after an unfortunate accident. When Russell gets out, Rodney is a bit of a lost soul after seeing too much in Iraq, but it’s Rodney’s relationship with local low life John Petty that sets the plot into motion.
The film at its heart is an engaging character study of these brothers dealing with a world that they don’t really recognize any more, before circumstance turns the final act into a gritty crime tale. Bale is a more subdued everyman here than he might have ever been before, but Russell feels so authentic and lived in it is easily some of Bale’s best work. Affleck gives another great performance here as well and he has a sad intensity to him that makes him empathetic as we watch him make the wrong decisions. Affleck gets the showier of the two roles, and he is, surprisingly, convincing as a bare knuckle brawler who is dealing with his pain by getting it from, and delivering it to, other people. Woody Harrelson is the nasty villain of the piece and he gets one of the year’s best intros in the film’s opening scene. Harrelson and the world his character, Harlan DeGroat, come from is just disgustingly realized in the film and as great as Harrelson is, Cooper gets a ton of credit for setting the mood in those scenes.
Cooper’s first film, Crazy Heart, was a solid and authentic look at alcoholism, and he brings that authenticity to the Appalachian backwoods to creepy effect (presumed authenticity, I have no idea how many “inbred” meth makers are really out there). Cooper’s affinity for close ups really lets his actors show off, but the camera also felt far more alive and mature here, impressing with a number of shots. The whole world is wonderfully realized and Cooper uses visuals to tell his story, rarely stopping to spell things out for you. Probably the only complaints I could levy against the film is a certain letter reveal and a CGI sunrise most viewers won’t even notice. The way Cooper glides back between the two brothers when they are separated is also beautifully handled and I really enjoyed the parallel between Rodney and an ill fated deer his brother and uncle are tracking. Great work by Cooper and his team all around and I am immensely more excited for his follow up after their excellent work here.
The rest of the cast is full of some great work as well, with Sam Sheppard bringing the expected gravitas you expect from the actor. Zoe Saldana is effective in a brief role as Bale’s old flame, but I do wish she had a bit more to do. Forest Whitaker turns to a grisly voice as a local cop and it helps diminish the gentle vibe he can often give off, but again for as effective he is he doesn’t have much impact on the story. Willem Dafoe is delightfully sleazy as John Petty and you almost believe him every time he tells Rodney, “I really don’t want you doing this.”
Out of the Furnace is a tense character study that features a number of great performances. Cooper makes leaps forward as a director, Bale gives a fantastic performance and everyone around him is nearly matching his game. The film’s third act was as tense as just about anything I’ve seen this year, but I could have just as easily watched a film just about Bale and Affleck dealing with life without the crime elements; this speaks to the strength of the film. Yet another great entry in 2013 and a film that is not to be missed.
Out of the Furnace is an A