The opening scene in “Out of the Furnace” is an immediate hook. Within the first few moments of this Scott Cooper directed drama, Woody Harrelson’s character, Harlan DeGroat, is seen viciously kicking a man at a local drive-in theater. The victim’s crime? He had tried to intervene while DeGroat was on the verge of choking his own date. We later learn that he is a meth addict and the leader of a ruthless crime ring in the New Jersey Ramapo Mountains. Violence is his passion, and he embraces it with gleeful, almost religious fervor.
Without giving too much away, the film does end with a satisfying resolution but its most poignant scenes are the first and the final.
The movie feels like it’s going to be fast paced and terrific, but it’s a while till we see the evil DeGroat again as Cooper slows the film’s pace down a notch while he sets up his main characters.
These characters include Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck) Baze, close knit brothers born and raised in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a hardscrabble Rust Belt hamlet that has been home to generations of American steel workers. Russell is the older more responsible and practical one who holds a steady job at the town’s mill, while Rodney, a lackadaisical gambler, took the only other option open to young men like him and enlisted in the Army hoping to find a better life outside of their small town.
After four brutal tours of duty in Iraq, Rodney returns to a recession-weary town. Mired in debt, he starts competing in vicious boxing matches and participating in brutal bare-knuckle brawls on which large amounts of money are wagered. When he disappears after leaving for a fight, Russell, frustrated with the police’s lack of progress decides against the advice of Braddock’s sheriff (played by Forest Whitaker) to look for his brother and finds himself face to face with the malevolent DeGroat.
The brothers are exceptionally close and Cooper makes that clear in several scenes. When Russell ends up in jail after a DUI incident, Rodney is the only one who pays him a visit. Even Russell’s girlfriend (Zoë Saldana) abandons him deciding to move on with her life.
A story about an ordinary man’s heroic measure to fight for those he loves, “Out of the Furnace” is a slow burn. Cooper (“Crazy Heart”), takes an exceedingly long time in building a crescendo especially given the movie’s violent opening.
“The entire picture is an examination of the nature of violence in a society in which men have to solve their own problems,” says Cooper. “We see that today in Syria, in Cairo, in South Los Angeles. I thought, if I’m going to examine violence in this way, then I should open the movie in a very naturalistically violent way, a way that I hadn’t seen in a film before.”
To his credit, part of the appeal of this movie is the way he makes it feel terribly authentic, a veracity that is a tribute to the skill of its actors. The fact that’s also shot entirely on location in and around Braddock, Pennsylvania, a former steel-industry hub that suffered a dramatic economic decline during the 1980s gives it that added authenticity and provides a poignant backdrop.
Saldana has a very small role as Russell’s girlfriend, Whitaker gets a few scenes here and there as the local sheriff, and Willem Dafoe plays small-town bookie, but the standout here is Harrelson. As DeGroat, Harrelson, who is known to millions of viewers as the affable bartender Woody Boyd in the long-running hit comedy, “Cheers,” makes it clear why he has become one of the most highly regarded dramatic actors working today.
“It is pretty dark material and DeGroat is the most extreme character I’ve ever played. Getting into character took a lot of imagination for me. I wrote journal entries from the character’s perspective to try to get into the mindset,” says the actor who has had a busy year and can be heard voicing the character of Jake in the movie “Free Birds” and seen in the sc-fi thriller “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.”
“Woody’s really scary in this role,” adds Michael Ireland, one of the co-producers on “Out of the Furnace’. “He’s such a versatile actor, but you’ve never seen him like this. It’s an iconic, all-time villainous performance. He’s a treacherous, vicious, snarling bad guy.”
Despite its strong cast and its exploration of themes such as redemption, family and loyalty, it’s impossible to love “Out of the Furnace.”
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