There's a wealth of material for filmmakers to pry out of the troubles that America has faced in the past decade. The depressed economy, the plight of the returning soldier, and the loss of American industry have all informed the plots of many of the best films written in the past couple years. In his second directorial effort, Out of the Furnace, filmmaker Scott Cooper attempts to turn the myriad of America’s most pressing issues into a story set in the backdrop of the country’s hard suffering Rust Belt, but he comes away with a merely competent dramatic thriller that clearly aspired to be something grander.
In the film, Christian Bale plays the hardworking and upstanding Russell Baze, an almost impossibly good-natured man who has worked in the local steel mill his entire life, and had planned, just like his ailing father, to do so until the day he died. But when the steel mill is scheduled to close, Baze's way of life as well as the town itself is crippled. Casey Affleck plays Russell's sensitive brother Rodney, whose tours in Iraq have left him emotionally eruptive and dissatisfied with his brother’s working man existence; Rodney would rather spend his time competing in underground fighting rings where he can still feel something. Rodney soon finds himself wrapped up in violent and reactionary crime ring that doesn't take kindly to strangers. It’s up to Russell to save his brother from the grips of the areas most terrifying criminals
Out of the Furnace is appealingly glum. Cooper finds beauty in the rolling hills and crumbling infrastructure of small town Pennsylvania, and the film fully embraces the derelict beauty of its settings, down to even the homes and the cars that the characters own. The film clearly prides itself on feeling authentic and it reaches its goals visually — at the very least.
The relationship between the brothers Baze also feels remarkably authentic. Both Bale and Affleck sell the relationship deftly, and have an almost tangible amount of on-screen chemistry that expresses their bond for each other in a way that no script could. This chemistry makes the scenes where Rodney has gone missing burn with terrific dramatic intensity.
There’s a quiet desperation in these people. Though they may be hopeful and happy in their set paths, there’s a feeling that they’re all walking along streets heading nowhere. America isn’t the land of opportunity anymore, not for the soldiers or the factory workers. The only thriving ones seem to be the criminals like Woody Harrelson’s Curtis Degroat, who is so overarchingly villainous that the only thing the character is missing is a dastardly moustache to twirl.
And this is the big issue with Out of the Furnace. While Harrelson’s performance is at times chilling, the script often dovetails Degroat into an overdone cartoon bad guy, and this weak characterization flows through a lot of the characters and seriously undermines a lot of the authenticity that the film believes itself to be built upon. There's a particularly groan-inducing scene where Degroat decries the human race in the gruffest voice he can muster. Woody’s Degroat character, and most of the others in the film, aren’t so much developed characters, but act more like clichéd archetypes in Cooper’s parable about a broken America. Degroat is simply the bad guy, and not characterized beyond that one-dimensional role in this story. Affleck’s wounded war veteran feels overwrought as well, with many of his scenes laying down the melodrama in thick sheets, particularly when he’s discussing the terrors he’s faced in the war oversees.
Out of the Furnace has a lot of things on its mind about the state of America’s small towns and working class heroes, but it doesn’t know the best way to express itself, and while some of it’s sentiments ring true others clank harshly like an off-note. The remarkable cast does its best to prop up a film that wants to tell a great American story, but it only manages to tell a fairly middling one.
The credits for Stoker, the new Chan-Wook Park movie that debuted at Sundance Sunday night, run backwards. Yes, instead of blooming up from the bottom of the screen and traveling up, they pour down from the top in a slow cascade. You'd think this wouldn't make that much of a difference, but it is extremely unsettling, seeing something you're so used to seeing but going in the opposite direction.
Likewise, in this world where spoiling the ending of a movie for someone is tantamount to cutting off one of their digits, I shouldn't be starting a review of a movie with the end, but I think that Stoker deserves it. When Park, who directed the brutal Oldboy, was introducing the movie, he said it is meant to be a dream or a fairy tale, but it is more like a waking nightmare. Everything is slightly off in the movie. Everything is either too large, too small, too modern, too old fashioned, too fast, too slow, too dirty, or too cleanly. It is our world, but tremendously askew, kiltering in one direction and then another, like trying to walk in a straight line after rolling down a hill.
The style only serves the story of India (Mia Wasikowska) who tells us at the beginning of the film that she has super powers: she can see far-away things clearly and hear sounds that no one else can hear. The morose teen gets even sadder when her beloved father dies in an accident and she is left in the care of her cold mother (Nicole Kidman) and her father's brother (Matthew Goode), who appears mysteriously after being absent for decades. The story unspools in unexpected ways as India starts to get interested in boys and discovers her sexuality thanks to the proximity of her handsome uncle. There are also several mysteries to unravel, each one leading to a new one with unexpected, horrible violence leading to even more violence until a shocking conclusion.
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The performances are all stellar with Wasikowska telegraphing ever-shifiting emotion without barely saying a word. Kidman, who speaks much more, is at her finest as a disinterested mother. She shows fear and disdain in the most subtle ways, never overplaying a character that could turn into a campy arch villain with just the tiniest bit of scene-chewing. And Goode is the most menacing of all, the malevolent force that hides behind the facade not only of normalcy but of something attractive that you know is incredibly dangerous.
As for the meaning, I'm not sure what screenwriter Wentworth Miller (yes, the same guy who wore all those tattoos for seasons on Prison Break) is going for. Can this fairy tale teach us anything about humanity or sexuality? The ending leads it in a direction that would take some of the more outrageous elements and turn them into a farce. It also makes the story more central to Wasikowska's character when the thing up until that point had been an exercise in showing us all how messed up our teen years can be.
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But this isn't a farce, it is a fairy tale, complete with a girl in peril who has to fight to save herself. There's running through the woods, magical intervention, and everything we've come to expect for the 13 Snow White movies that came out last year. Still this is like a more chilling version of Beetlejuice, except this gothic fun house has none of the whimsy of Tim Burton. Here every strange perspective is meant to make you uncomfortable. Some of the elements of the story are so outrageous to be unbelievable and many will probably find this film to be groanworthy and insane in a bad way. Still it is unlike anything you've ever seen and will stick in your mind like a spider crawling across your skull. Love it or hate it, you'll be transfixed from beginning to end – when the credits start to roll backwards, making even your final moments with this film particularly off-putting.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan