Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Out of the Furnace

OUT OF THE FURNACE                  B-       
USA  Great Britain  (116 mi)  2013  ‘Scope  d:  Scott Cooper

Having only made two films, it’s hard not to compare, as Cooper’s first feature CRAZY HEART (2009) took the cinema world by storm, a small gem of a story about the hard life on the country music circuit told with an aching authenticity, winning a Best Actor award for Jeff Bridges, who also sings the Oscar winning Best Song.  Changing directions here, a more grim and downbeat story, Cooper has chosen a distinctly working class American mill town in Pennsylvania steel country, where jobs are scarce and sympathy is non-existent.  Everybody does what they can in this environment, receiving few accolades or rewards in life.  Reminiscent of films like TWICE IN A LIFETIME (1985) or THE DEER HUNTER (1978), which Cooper pays a distinct homage to, these films have a connection to the land upon which they’re based, where untold stories of hardship speak to settings like Braddock, Pennsylvania, not far from Pittsburgh, an area that was part of an economic boom in the 50’s and 60’s when American steel mills were at their peak.  But today the population is around 2100, where the dual economic downturns of the 80’s when the blast furnaces closed and then again in 2009 when the foreclosure disaster took the life blood out of these towns, leaving boarded-up houses, vacant lots, and enormous rusted out and decaying mill structures still standing, now seen as eyesores on the desolate urban landscape.  While there is a closing credit:  This film was shot entirely and proudly on Kodak film, it’s been strangely transformed to digital, giving it a grainy and processed look instead of something more natural, as if the humanity has been squeezed right out of the film itself.  Opening and closing to Eddie Vedder singing Pearl Jam songs, which you’d think would be a perfect blue collar fit for a modern era ghost town, but the director indicated he felt Vedder’s voice could be overpowering, taking the focus away from what’s presented onscreen, so he chose Tindersticks’ guitarist Dickon Hinchliffe to score the film.     

Almost like chapter sequences, one by one the main characters are introduced, including Woody Harrelson as Harlan DeGroat, an out of control, hillbilly shitkicker who’s always hopped up on crystal meth, Christian Bale as Russell Baze, one of the men working in the mill, and his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), who refuses to go anywhere near the place, choosing any other way to make a living, an Army veteran serving several tour of duties in Iraq.  Russell has a happy relationship going with a local grade school teacher Lena, Zoë Soldana, while also helping to look after his elderly and seriously ill father, along with his Uncle Red, Sam Shepard.  This close family unit and deranged outsider are destined to meet at some point, but not until much later in the film.  Bale’s Russell couldn’t be more understated, a man of few words, but loyal and outwardly friendly, where he’s seen as a good man that bad things happen to, one of the victims of the economic crunch, where he’s continually bailing out his brother’s debts to the local bookie, Willem DaFoe as John Petty, who keeps an office in the back of the local saloon.  It’s after having a drink with Petty that Russell has a deadly car accident killing several people, including a small boy, sending him off to several years in prison (in the gothic confines of the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, operating from 1867 to 1995).  Lena refuses to experience the grim prison reality, but Rodney keeps his brother appraised of life on the outside, including the eventual death of his father.  By the time he gets out, Lena has left him for the local police chief (Forest Whitaker), leaving an emptiness in his life that seemingly can’t be filled.  But he doesn’t go get drunk or do something drastic, he just feels the solitude of being alone, where he remains emotionally imprisoned even though he’s back on the outside.  This is perhaps best expressed in a deer hunting scene where he and Uncle Red head out into the forest, where he quietly comes upon a male buck, but hesitates to shoot, as he hasn’t the heart to kill anymore after killing two innocent people. 

Meanwhile, Rodney does under-the-table, bare knuckle fights (instead of Christopher Walken’s Russian roulette), which is how he pays off some of his debts to Petty, a kind of repugnant way of making a buck, often returning battered and bruised, reminiscent of the excellent Walter Hill Depression movie with Charles Bronson, HARD TIMES (1975), who makes a living the same way.  Tired of nickel and dime fights, however, Rodney demands some real action from Petty, something that will pay off his entire debt and actually get him somewhere.  Warned repeatedly about how savage these men are up in the Appalachians, described as “inbred mountain folk from Jersey,” some of whom never come down off that mountain, nonetheless Rodney forces his hand.  The parallel aerial views of the drives to the fight scene and the deer hunt are carefully choreographed, leaving no question that the hunt is on, one animal and the other human, both equally barbaric and ferocious when seen from the view of the one being hunted.  These primitive practices stand at the center of what was once a proud and thriving city, now economically stripped to the bone where savagery rules.  It’s here that Masanobu Takayanagi’s darkened, washed out cinematography becomes truly hideous, as Harlan DeGroat represents the scum of the earth, the very worst of America, where violence is a blood sport, with bodies left buried somewhere in the woods never to be seen again, with the police nowhere to be found.  When Rodney turns up missing, this pits Russell against the police chief, the guy who stole his girl, further angered at the apparent inaction of the police, where there’s a moral void at the center of the absence of responsibility.  It’s not just the ominous music of the Tindersticks that this film shares, but also the bleak, atmospheric portrait of an isolated, mountain society from Debra Granik’s 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #3 Winter's Bone (2010), which shows us part of the closed-off economic devastation we rarely see.  Despite the influence of Leonardo DiCaprio and Ridley Scott as high-priced producers, and superb performances from the leads, what’s missing is a more closely observed script, co-written by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby, completely lacking the focus and meticulous detail of Granik’s backwoods portrait of rural America, which utilized locals in the cast.  Instead what we get is a weary and worn out America, tired of sacrificing so much for this country, and getting so little back in return, as Eddie Vedder sings an updated version of Pearl Jam’s “Release” Pearl Jam - Release from the dvd "The kids are twenty" - YouTube (4:44) over the end credits.

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