Just when I thought this wonderful movie season could not get any better... it did. My Huffington readers are well aware of my rather far-out opinions via many reviews here of recent films, from the highly favorable Twelve Years a Slave, Blue Jasmine, Mandela, Dallas Buyers Club, Blue is the Warmest Color to the highly disliked The Prisoners and The Counselor (whose director, Ridley Scott, along with Leonard DiCaprio, are two of the producers of the film I am reviewing herein) and even some just-to-me blah films Nebraska, Inside Llewyn Davis, there are still a few upcoming which I am anxious to see: Labor Day, Saving Mr. Banks, The Wolf of Wall Street but last night I attended a screening at the CAA theatre of an unheralded (to me) film, Out of the Furance, which shook me up and upended my opinions about the best of the year. I decided to go at the last minute because I am a fan of Christian Bale, the fine actor who is playing the lead role in this grimy, brutal and brilliant drama. (He, of course, was the star of three Batman films and is now doing Ridley Scott's biblical epic, Exodus). After the screening, I went to the reception 'cause I desperately needed a drink and ran into the personable young director, Scott Cooper, whose last film, Crazy Heart, I had seen and really liked some four years ago. (Remember that, with Jeff Bridges -- who won an Academy Award for it, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who was nominated, with music selected by T. Bone Burnett?) What started as a gratuitous comment by me about how much I had liked the movie stretched into a longer conversation which illuminated to me much about the film and the filmmaker.
Cooper's stark, hypnotic Rust Belt drama had premiered early this month at the AFI Festival but I missed it there. I will only briefly detail the story; I know, I know, I always say that and then give away too much -- but hey, that's my prerogative. The film opens before titles with a vicious scene at a drive-in which introduces our villain, a horrendous Woody Harrelson playing the murderous leader of an Appalachian mountain gang with no rules or restraints. (The director told me this was based on a real-life character who had badly affected his family.) Then we meet the straight-arrow hero, Russell Baze, played by Bale, a solid guy working at the steel mill in the small Pennsylvania town of Braddock, outside of Pittsburgh. He is in a relationship with the lovely 35-year old Zoe Saldana (Remember her as Neytin, whom we all fell in love with in Avatar?). We meet his brother Rodney, played by the impressive Casey Affleck, an Army veteran just returned from three rough tours in Iraq and is unable to adjust to civilian life. Their father is a mill worker now on life support and comforted by their uncle, his old friend Sam Sheppard. (God, what a wonderful actor, here in a small supporting role.) Willem Dafoe plays a shrewd bar owner engaged in many devious schemes involving drugs and illegal boxing matches with gambling. The other actor of note is Forest Whitaker as the local police chief.
Bale is involved in an unfortunate car accident where a woman is killed pulling out of her driveway, and he is sent to the pen for three years. When he gets out, his girl, Lena, has connected with Sheriff Whitaker. He is despondent about that and the death of his father. Meanwhile, we see that his brother, Rodney, has been doing bare-knuckle boxing matches promoted by Defoe because he can't handle the stress of a regular job. Affleck urges his promoter, Defoe, to set him up with the better-paying boxing matches in northern New Jersey where Woody-and-gang reign supreme. Defoe warns him that these are guys you don't want to cross or be involved with, but he insists. And that's when the film takes off on its wild, brutal and fascinating course. Director Cooper told me that he grew up near the Blue Ridge mountains of Appalachia, the grandson of a coal mine there. He had insisted that they film on actual locations in Pennsylvania, although the film company, Ryan Kavanaugh's Relativity Media, would have preferred he shoot at more tax-friendly location like Massachusetts. They shot 33 days in Pittsburgh, Braddock, an abandoned prison in West Virginia, and the deer-hunting scenes in a state park. I mentioned that there was much that reminded me of The Deer Hunter in his film and he subtly agreed: "But this is a different time and the country is in an even uglier mood."
Scott had knocked about for years as an actor without much luck before writing and directing his first film (never having gone to film school.) I was intrigued by a conversation I read where Bale noted that director Cooper often didn't call "action" to start shooting a scene but rather just let them slip into it at their own pace -- "whenever you're ready" -- creating an atmosphere on the set of warmth and camaraderie, a safe environment for the actors to take risks. Brad Ingelsby is credited as co-writer and the excellent musical score is by Dickson Hinchliffe, while Masanobu Takayanagi did the superb cinematography.
Frankly, I don't know if Furnace has the chops to go all the way to the Best Picture list at Oscar time, with some pretty hefty competition, but I do know that of all the movies I have seen this year - and that has been a huge number-- it has had one of the most profound effects on me afterwards... remaining with me in my waking hours and in my restless dreams. And that's what a great movie should do. Out of the Furnace is a revelation and a great movie, and that is why I suggest you see it soon. It opened for limited release in L.A., and opens in N.Y. on Dec. 4th and will go wide December 6th. Enjoy!
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