Milton’s Burning: Scott Cooper’s ‘Out Of The Furnace’

Christian Bale subdues a flame in Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace
Christian Bale subdues a flame in Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace

Scott Cooper’s father was taught by William Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe at the University of Virginia, and Scott lists them as literary influences on his film work. In his new movie, Out of the Furnace, you can feel them, their aesthetic evaluation of the human condition. Cooper’s famous for writing/directing Crazy Heart, and if you’ve seen that film, take its realism around people and the complex problems they live within, then double it for Out of The Furnace. Look at the two film’s posters on imdb, and you’ll actually see them kind of answering each other. Cooper is making an oeuvre for himself.

The film centres on the brothers Baze, Russell and Rodney. They are played to a key by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, respectively. Their story takes place in the Appalachians of The United States. Pennsylvania specifically, though the specifics don’t matter. Under the mountain, Russell and Rodney’s own existences centre around ‘the mill’ which is closing. Their unnamed town is a classic, economically depressed Rust Belt encampment. The Mill. America.

The film begins in 2008, Barack Obama’s on the news at the Democratic Convention, rising to restore America. This is not the America we see. Rodney has just returned from a tour in Iraq— the film might list The Deer Hunter as another immediate ancestor. He will get stop-lossed and return soon. Russell, who works at the mill, will head to prison after a catastrophic twist of fate. It’s one example of the film’s focus on the problems of justice, or whether it exists in the first place. It’s a theme at work on every level of the narrative, especially in Russell’s life.

The film happens with the mountain— on it, in the valley below it— but it only brings the full weight of the set piece to bear about half-way through the movie. This is when the film’s main antagonist, or at least the film’s figure for larger, unembodied nemeses, Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), begins to gather steam. He lives at the summit. The film actually opens with this brutal man at a drive in theatre, not watching the urban, cinematique rush of suits and blue-grey hues on screen.

If the over-stylish film on screen is blue, the subdued one we watch is red. The first half of the movie’s collage of short, curt scenes work to deeply introduce us to the characters that make up the tale, one of whom is actually named Red. It’s a drive towards the depiction of a realistic human that doesn’t let up throughout the film. The fire that these characters pass into is love, and its necessities.

The mountain is the problem bigger than you. America after the recession, or the justice system, your father’s sickness, fate itself. Russell and Rodney live in the valley at the bottom of this object, and it looms over many of the movie’s tight, emotional scenes. Both brothers, at some point in the story, ascend that mountain, and meet the antagonist— taking action themselves to right a wrong, repay a debt that may be too complex for any one person to possibly manage.

Along Bale and Affleck the film also stars Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepard. There’s not a bad performance in sight. It’s a lucid, unafraid pick at some very big problems in the West, under the cover of that ancient place.

Out of the Furnace opens across Canada December 6. 

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