Film Review: First-class exercise in lower-class realities

The film opens at a drive-in cinema with the camera moving forth to focus on one particular car.

Inside, a woman is attempting to calm her hotheaded date, a bullish man by the name of DeGroat (Harrelson).

The scene culminates in DeGroat trying to choke his date by forcing a hot-dog down her throat and then beating half to death a concerned witness who attempts to intervene. 

At this point I had decided that the film wasn’t for me: the over-baked dialogue and obvious characterisations were enough to convince me that this was exclusively for those titillated by meaningless violence. Apparently the film had been crafted with a deficit of good taste.

Then came scenes introducing more of the cast: Christian Bale as Russell Baze, an honest-to-goodness steelworker; Casey Affleck as Rodney, his scrappy younger brother home from a fourth tour in Iraq; and Sam Shepard as their kindly uncle. 

Bit by bit, scene by scene, the ugly clam opens to reveal a steady string of pearls. Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek) plays opposite Bale as his girlfriend and their first scene is touching and funny. 

Affleck (who, perhaps to his chagrin, will forever be ‘Affleck the younger’) again proves himself infinitely more interesting than his elder sibling, with a degree of just-below-the-surface chaos to his damaged war veteran – a quality that coupled with a gambling habit gives his big brother constant cause for concern. 

Despite this, the brothers’ obvious bond extends to their uncle and terminally-ill, bed-ridden father. This is a loving family, but they’re struggling to stay afloat. Lack of work is an issue – particularly for Rodney who has secretly taken to competing in bare-knuckle boxing in illegal gambling rings.

In its first act, the film shows us briefly the aforementioned monster DeGroat, and goes on to detail the minutiae of Russell Baze’s life as described. From here there’s a gear change.

A reoccurring motif throughout the film is that of surfaces peeling, chipped or burned away … revealing surfaces below. A random driving offence causes Russell to serve a lengthy spell in jail – during which his father dies and his girlfriend leaves him. When he returns home, he attempts to rebuild all that. 

His first act is to strip away layer after layer of paint from the exterior of his father’s house. From here, the narrative exerts a similar process on Baze himself, brutally stripping him of layer after layer, until finally we see what remains beneath.

There’s a sub-genre of the crime thriller emerging from America’s sleepy suburbs. Perhaps The Deer Hunter is a distant relative, but these are stories of working or lower-middle class people tested by dark, violent events set in a post-9/11dystopia. 

Recent films like Prisoners, Mud, Killer Joe (despite a macabre absurdism) and Killing Them Softly are prime examples. Their crime narratives are pulp-ish with an Elmore Leonard flavour, but the execution, as with Out Of The Furnace, aspire to social realism. 

While there’s little originality here, there’s plenty more to recommend it including an atmospheric soundtrack by Dickon Hinchcliffe that helps to gently underpin the drama and contribute to a film that, while not without its problems, is a first-class exercise in mood and place. 

Out of the Furnace

Dir: Scott Cooper; UK/US; Crime Thriller;  2013, 116 mins; Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe

Premiered March 13
Playing Nationwide