Crazy Heart, actor-turned-filmmaker Scott Cooper’s Oscar winning debut, told a story of small town people with dwindling prospects who, against all odds, achieved a level of grace. It didn’t have what we generally consider a happy ending but, even if they didn’t get what they wanted, its characters ended up almost as happy as if they had. Heartwarming in the best sense of the word, it was a great film.
For his follow up, the writer-director’s gone in a different direction. Set in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a blighted stretch of the Rust Belt, it tells a story of steel town people with dwindling prospects who, against all odds, end up worse off than they were to begin with for all their finely crafted, superbly acted trouble. Heartrending in the best sense of the word, it isn’t a great film.
Which doesn’t mean Out of the Furnace doesn’t have its moments and doesn’t deserve to be seen. It’s a movie made in the tradition of character and issue driven pictures of the 70s. Let’s just say it fares better at evoking that moment in cinema than equaling it. It’s Deer Hunter Lite.
The film echoes motifs from other titles too but, sticking with the Deer Hunter homage: The got-his-s**t-together De Niro correlative is the older of the two Baze brothers, Russell, played with formidable attention to detail by Christian Bale. He works in the mill (a real life relic called the Carrie Furnace). Casey Affleck plays the Walken stand in, Rodney, back from four tours in Iraq and a ticking post-traumatic bomb drawn to the backroom world of bare knuckle boxing in the absence of a thriving Russian roulette scene.
Willem Dafoe costars as John Petty, an underworld fixer who sets up and bets on the haunted kid’s fights. He approximates Pierre Segui’s Julien Grinda, the shadowy figure who gives Michael handfuls of the cash he’s won wagering on Nick near the end of Michael Cimino’s movie. Cooper isn’t subtle about his wistful love for the classic.
He lifts one iconic scene verbatim. After a painful and transformative experience, Russell goes hunting with his uncle (Sam Shepard), tracks a majestic buck, gets him in his crosshairs and-well, you know what happens. That’s the point. The director knows you know. It’s like he’s saying “Wasn’t that a great film? Don’t we all carry it inside us?”
Much of the movie can be seen coming and not just because its trailer leaves no plot point unspoiled. Out of the Furnace and Winter’s Bone in particular share a number of elements-a primeval forest setting, an underground meth culture and a violent, tweaked up hillbilly from hell among them.
The minute Rodney convinces Petty to get him a match against one of the fighters in Harlan DeGroat’s stable, we pretty much know where things are headed. After all, the crank kingpin is played by Woody Harrelson and, if you’ve seen No Country For Old Men, Rampart or Seven Psychopaths, you know good things do not as a rule come of encounters with his characters these days.
Indeed, the movie eventually gets around to the revengefest the ads promise and, given the caliber of the acting, the earthy music of the dialogue and the many superbly observed details which distinguish it up to its final act, the picture’s real surprise is just how few surprises the last half hour holds. There are pictures which simply aren’t greater than the sum of their parts and this is one of them, one of those movies-and I see them all the time-that doesn’t have a dull moment but leaves you feeling kind of ho-hum about it once the credits roll. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll wish you’d watched The Deer Hunter.