I was hooked from the moment I saw the preview: Christian Bale’s Russell Baze goes searching for his little brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) and finds himself up against Woody Harrelson’s mountain man Curtis DeGroat. Produced by Ridley Scott and directed by Gods and Generals/Crazy Heart’s Scott Cooper, the film is a slow boiling thriller in the vein of Winter’s Bone or Drive, transplanting the action in the rural areas of Pennsylvania and New Jersey rather than some urban sprawl. But at the heart of the matter is the relationship between the two brothers, and the lines we will cross when it comes to family.
Russell is the “good” brother, until a poor decision finds him serving time. In the meantime, his rudderless brother gets in deeper with the local loan shark (Willem Dafoe) and moves up the illegal brawling circuit until he’s in the clutches of DeGroat. The audience already knows the kind of human being DeGroat is, having seen him brutalize a man and a woman in the opening scene that conjures up those other grind-it-out flicks, or something even more vicious, like A History of Violence. The astonishing thing is that for most of the film, Bale’s Baze is the observer, the acted-upon rather than the act-er, until he comes to that moment where he must choose the kind of man he will be.
There are several side issues that bear mentioning before I get back to the nitty gritty. There’s the question of a serviceperson’s status in between tours of duty, as the younger Baze finds himself broke, meandering, and angry, with no positive outlets. Brad Inglesby’s script highlights the problem there, while shining (intentionally?) a light on the political climate around war and the military in a way that plants the film in a realistic present. There’s also the inability of the police/government to do its job, as some people prove to be above the law (or too dangerous to cross). While this seems likely in the case of the Prohibition of alcohol and other recollections of days gone by, Out of the Furnace implies there are still corners of the U.S. where crime (and violence) pays.
Still, this is a big name-filled flick that takes a close up on Bale’s Russell and Harrelson’s DeGroat. In most cases, DeGroat proves more gripping, more interesting, because he’s such a nuanced psycho. (One might say this happens to Bale on a regular basis, as he’s upstaged by Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.) But Harrelson plays DeGroat with restraint, like a tethered beast chewing glass, most of the time, until he unleashes his fury, sometimes apologetically and sometimes without remorse. And Bale’s elder brother has to consider what responsibility he has for this demon loosed on his kid brother, even if his brother brought it on himself.
Zero Dark Thirty did such an amazing job of highlighting the cost of one person’s soul when violence and vengeance are combined. Furnace attempts to lure us in and ask us what Russell will lose if he pursues justice that the police can’t achieve, if he invests himself fully in his brother’s life. For the most part, he’s seen as a man of peace, even attending church services in prison and outside. We even hear the chaplain intone from Isaiah 53:5, “But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.”
Is Russell a Christ-figure? Does he take on the pain and anguish of the quest because of his brother’s sins? Does he take on something he doesn’t want (a la Man of Steel) to provide a greater peace? Out of the Furnace leaves us wondering (even if it does provide an epilogue that seems to let us somewhat off the hook), and asking ourselves, what does justice cost? When is vengeance justifiable? What decisions do we make everyday, that seem small, but that lend themselves to a greater good or evil?