Crazy Heart, the Oscar-winning directorial debut of actor-turned-filmmaker Scott Cooper, told a story of small-town people with dwindling prospects who, against all odds, achieve a level of grace. It didn’t have what we generally consider a happy ending, but, while its characters didn’t get what they wanted, they ended up almost as happy as if they had. Heartwarming in the best sense of the word, it was a great film.
For his follow-up, the writer-director has gone in a different direction. Set in Braddock, Penn., a blighted stretch of the Rust Belt, Out of the Furnace tells a story of steel-town people with dwindling prospects who, against all odds, end up worse off than they started for all their finely crafted, superbly acted trouble. Heartrending in the best sense of the word, it isn’t a great film.
That doesn’t mean Out of the Furnace doesn’t have its moments or doesn’t deserve to be seen. It’s a movie made in the tradition of character- and issue-driven pictures of the ’70s. Let’s just say it fares better at evoking that moment in cinema than at equaling it. It’s The Deer Hunter lite.
The film echoes motifs from other titles, too, but let’s stick with the Deer Hunter homage. The got-his-shit-together Robert De Niro correlative is the older of the two Baze brothers, Russell, played with formidable attention to detail by Christian Bale. He works in the mill (a real-life relic called the Carrie Furnace). Casey Affleck plays the Christopher Walken stand-in, Rodney, who is back from four tours in Iraq and is a ticking post-traumatic time bomb. He’s drawn to the back-room world of bare-knuckle boxing in the absence of a thriving Russian roulette scene.
Willem Dafoe costars as John Petty, an underworld fixer who sets up and bets on the haunted kid’s fights. He approximates Pierre Segui’s Julien Grinda, the shadowy figure who gives De Niro’s character handfuls of the cash he’s won wagering on Walken near the end of Michael Cimino’s movie. Cooper isn’t subtle about his wistful love for the classic.
He lifts one iconic scene verbatim. After a painful and transformative experience, Russell goes hunting with his uncle (Sam Shepard), tracks a majestic buck, gets him in his crosshairs and — well, you know what happens. That’s the point. The director knows you know. It’s like he’s saying, “Wasn’t The Deer Hunter a great film? Don’t we all carry it inside us?”
Much of the movie can be seen coming, and not just because its trailer leaves no plot point unspoiled. Out of the Furnace also shares a number of plot elements with Winter’s Bone, a primeval forest setting, an underground meth culture and a violent, tweaked-up hillbilly from hell among them.
The minute Rodney convinces Petty to get him a match against one of the fighters in Harlan DeGroat’s stable, we pretty much know where things are headed. After all, the crank kingpin is played by Woody Harrelson. If you’ve seen No Country for Old Men, Rampart or Seven Psychopaths, you know that these days good things do not, as a rule, come of encounters with his characters.
The movie eventually gets around to the revenge fest the ads promise. Yet, given the caliber of the acting, the earthy music of the dialogue and the many superbly observed details that distinguish the picture up to its final act, the real surprise is just how few surprises that last half hour holds.
There are pictures that simply aren’t greater than the sum of their parts, and this is one of them; it’s one of those movies — I see them all the time — that doesn’t have a dull moment but leaves you feeling kind of ho-hum once the credits roll. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll wish you’d watched The Deer Hunter.