Director: Scott Cooper; Writers: Scott Cooper, Brad Ingelsby; Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe, Tom Bower, Forest Whitaker; Running time: 116 minutes; Certification: 15
To say I was a big fan of Crazy Heart, Scott Cooper’s last film, would be an understatement: I thought it was brilliant. What impressed me most was how he was able to – as a first-time director – coax nuances from his actors and somehow enhance already excellent performances by taking a modest back-seat stance which basically let them run the show; a show which, after all, was front and foremost a character study. One of the main things I took away from that film was how much potential this guy has, particularly to create compelling character pieces, and to my delight, Out Of The Furnace completely proves that potential.
My interest was initially peaked by the appearance of who I deem to be two of the finest actors of this generation in the cast list; Christian Bale and Casey Affleck. They both, conforming to expectation, put in superlative performances as close brothers torn apart by war, death, the criminal underworld, the expectations of society and the difficultly of a failing economy. Their bond is believable and we invest ourselves completely in their struggles right until the final gripping moments. Bolstering them is a host of great names; Saldana, Shepard, Dafoe, who all do top-rate jobs, but the next standout is Woody Harrelson’s monstrous Harlon DeGroat. He encapsulates his villainous role wonderfully, to the point where every time he comes on-screen we’re genuinely afraid of what he’ll do next, what will set him off. His volatility and cruelty combine to create one of the most memorable screen villains in recent years, and he throws out any memories we may have of Woody from Cheers. A marvellous, horrible performance.
The one weak link in the film, strangely, is Forest Whitaker. Perhaps it’s partly to do with his role being underwritten and flogged off as a narrative device rather than an actual character, but he’s curiously unconvincing as the cop attempting to solve a case with personal connections to him. His voice, deep and grainy, sounds oddly fake, and his delivery of lines comes across as quite hammy and contrived. It’s a shame, because he’s usually a fantastic performer (he was great in The Butler.)
Much of the impact of the film lies in the sound design. With a large portion of the plot centring on bare-knuckle boxing, we’re subjected to a barrage of kicks and beatings, but even when we’re not in the ring there’s usually someone or other receiving a crunching blow – usually from the fist of Harrelson’s DeGroat. What makes the violence so impacting is the physicality of the sounds. There are no Hollywood sound effects for miles; when a fist hits flesh it sounds like a fist hitting flesh, and it’s immensely uncomfortable.
There’s a clear resemblance to Dead Man’s Shoes running through the narrative, which, for me, led to a strange phenomenon rarely seen in cinema. What often happens when one film evokes another that is highly regarded is that it pales in comparison, even if it is actually quite decent. While I think Dead Man’s Shoes is rather interesting and entertaining, what I felt Scott Cooper’s film did by evoking it was actually depreciate it because Out Of The Furnace is such a compelling piece of work. Dead Man’s Shoes is, generally, a very well received film, but Out Of The Furnace feels like a more rounded, a more gripping and a more complete version a similar idea – as, indeed, it’s a more complete version of many revenge dramas.
The odd misstep along the way is quickly forgotten as confident direction and fine performances guide this impressive, visceral, slow-burning character study to a conclusion that, like most of its characters, packs a hard punch.