Blast of evil
By Carl Kozlowski
Woody Harrelson has made a career of playing both lovable nut jobs and diabolical psychopaths, taking the portrayal of evil to controversial new heights in Natural Born Killers in 1994.
Now, nearly 20 years later, he’s outdone himself once again, this time in Out of the Furnace, in which Harrelson plays redneck Harlan DeGroat, a meth-dealing operator of a fight club that makes Brad Pitt’s underground endeavors in the 1999 cult classic look like schoolyard mischief.
But Out of the Furnace, which hits theaters nationwide Friday, is not just another simpleminded exercise in gutbucket brutality. Rather, it’s the story of two brothers— played by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck—whose lives are forever transformed when they cross paths with DeGroat.
The second film by writer-director Scott Cooper, who directed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar in his filmmaking debut Crazy Heart in 2009, Furnace is a tale of forgotten lives stuck in neutral in far too many American small towns. Here, the city is the real-life burg of Braddock, Pa., which had taken it on the chin after all of its steel mills shut down.
Bale plays Russell Baze, a good-hearted everyman who works hard in the same mill in which his father toiled. He now cares for his dad, waiting for the old man to die while lying on a couch at home with an IV drip in his arm. Russell has another brother named Rodney, a war vet traumatized by four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rodney can’t stop drinking, fighting and gambling due to his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When he racks up a gambling debt that’s too big to handle for local crime boss John Petty (Willem Dafoe), Rodney begs Petty to let him knock out his debt by taking some knocks in the ring, which DeGroat—the string-puller behind Petty’s criminal activities—runs. Petty worries that the DeGroat ring is too intensely violent for Rodney, but the troubled soldier insists, leading to tragic consequences, which draw Russell into a quest to put away DeGroat for good.
Furnace works as a gritty modern noir set in the rarely seen world of the small-town Northeast, but its well-written and acted characters make it deeply affecting. Bale makes Russell particularly three-dimensional, as he struggles to keep his dignity and faith alive as he recovers from a prison stint for killing a child in a DUI-related car accident. He also must get over the fact that he lost his longtime girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) to the town police chief (Forest Whitaker) during his time behind bars.
Meanwhile, Affleck is a boiling caldron of emotions and frustration with the limited options afforded him after he risked his life in numerous tours of duty. And Harrelson has said that DeGroat was such a horrendous person that he was the one character in his lengthy career that he was most eager to shake off.
You might have guessed by now that Out of the Furnace is something of a downer, and as such it might seem a strange release for the holiday season. But amid the many ways to express holiday cheer these days, perhaps there needs to be a movie for the Scrooge or Grinch in us all.