Steve Cooper’s first film Crazy Heart was more notable for its central performance than the film surrounding it, and with his follow-up, Out of the Furnace, he manages to coax a number of equally taut, truthful performances out of his better-than-fine cast. But the focus on performance belies the real quiet intensity and knowing humanism of Cooper’s sure hand; it drowns out, as it is wont to do for the public’s acting-above-directing central interests, the work keeping those stars sturdy and focused in the first place. To some extent, this is perhaps appropriate; Cooper is not a director that “insists” upon himself. He’s not showy, asking and begging from his material. Instead, he lets his material surround him; he merely coaxes what is already there out onto the screen. He’s a quiet, naturalist director, not the kind of man seeking to wow, but merely to impress. He’s at his best when he’s at his simplest – direct and thoughtful studies of small people struggling to get by in the locations that breed them – and for the first half of Out of the Furnace, he sticks to his guns as an observer more than a pusher and creates something quietly great, if not essential.
Cooper’s story is matter-of-fact and pointedly free of airs. Set in the small, stripped-barren Western Pennsylvania steel mill town of North Braddock, it follows Russell Baze (Christian Bale) through his daily non-existence, bleeding day into night and night into day in a hazy passage of time good only for stripping the last thing left keeping North Braddock afloat: humanity. He also bears an insufferable weight, the kind which had him imprisoned for manslaughter but whose deeper consequences show through only in Russell’s shuffling gait and less-than-well-worn eyes. To make matters worse, Russell’s brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck, perfect for these kinds of low-key, lived-in working-class roles), has taken to illegal fighting to make some quick cash in Russell’s absence, while Russell’s girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) has left for a more respectable partner. For the first half of the film, when Cooper is simply letting all these slow-going trends stew about in the open wound that is North Braddock, capturing like a fly-on-the-wall the physical, sensory whole of the town – a town devoid of feeling but deeply felt nonetheless – he’s got himself a keeper that exudes a contemplative, quiet energy and sense of bone dry chill not unlike what Debra Granik achieved with Winter’s Bone a few years ago, or what Jeff Nichols’ brought to the screen the year before Cooper’s own effort.
Certainly, to this end, the MVP of the production is Masanobu Takayanagi’s crippled cinematography, broken-down and grimy and very intentionally sapped of color or pleasure in even the littlest moments of the film. More than anything, the film really wants to seem a deterministic, funereal piece of embalmed depression, almost to the point where the thing collapses on its self-important sadness. But the sheer look and sound of the whole thing keeps it from ever becoming indulgent; it finds liveliness in death and gives the finished product a metallic-yet-earthen decayed downtrodden nature that does most of the heavy lifting when the film’s narrative insists a bit too much on its thematic subtext of dudes being dudes in a town fit to rob them of their dudeliness.
However, the second half of Out of the Furnace is nowhere near the equal of its first. Cooper’s experience is not with thrillers, and this film’s questionable attempts at inducing white-knuckle thrills are much less effective than its earlier existential dread. The second half of the film, when Woody Harrelson’s rough-and-tumble street takes center stage as a villain of sorts, moves things down the pathway to narrative filmmaking. There, the results are much less satisfying than the rather non-narrative moment-to-moment ebb of the first half (although the issues are no fault of Harrelson’s, who reminds that low-key Southern charm is always a dead ringer for contorted, slithering villainy when oiled up and stewed to perfection).
But Harrelson’s role in the film puts it at a crossroads – spend time living in its environment and rendering a wonderfully physical, sensory location for us all, or induce plot spasms and move forward with verve and energy as a work of event and action – and it can’t quite decide how to proceed from this junction. It’s as if Cooper knows he’s better at, and more invested in, the former, but that he needs to expand or pick up the pace for the sake of entertaining the masses. The final product is fittingly confused, spending so much time with Cooper’s pride-and-joy quiet humanism that it loses most of the momentum it could have built up earlier on had it been bred as a thriller. The last third of the film passes by in a breathless gasp that appears messy more than anything, as if scenes were missing or cut too readily by an over-eager editor. Meanwhile, the need for event and narrative propulsion robs the film of its lived-in melancholy and terrifically felt, existential characters. It’s a trade-off, and on balance, Cooper proves more sure-handed with the characters than their narrative. More simply put, the problem with Out of the Furnace isn’t that it spends so long with character and environment that its narrative only begins in proper half-way through, but that it feels the need to begin a narrative at all.
The end result is equal parts troubled and troubling, but it is never less than decent, and it is frequently very good. As a low-and-slow tour through a long-suffering community that is always wise never to live above its characters, and instead chooses to reside by their side and in their hearts, it is a fine, if inessential and overly-busy, motion picture.