By Joan Ellis
“Out of the Furnace” opens with a brutal attack and submerges audiences in violence for nearly two hours.
Why go? Because it is beautifully acted by Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck.
Just as we are settling in, the screen fills with the sight of an old-fashioned drive-in movie theater when suddenly a man throws a woman out of the car and beats her to near unconsciousness. That would be Woody Harrelson creating Harlan DeGroat, the most monstrous movie villain to stalk the screen in years. DeGroat is unreachable by any kind of reason or appeal. He is always looking, it seems, for the quickest possible way to humiliate and beat whoever crosses him. He wants to be triggered.
His power? He runs a fight ring on a mountain in northern New Jersey where people stand in a circle to watch bare-knuckled fighters beat each other nearly to death.
One who crosses him is Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck), an Iraq veteran determined not to follow the paths of his father and brother in the decaying old mill in Braddock, Pa. To avoid what he sees as the life of a loser, he gambles and loses his borrowed money. In deep debt, he resorts to fighting on Harlan DeGroat’s mountain.
He returns home bloodied and beaten to his brother Russell Baze (Christian Bale), the dutiful millworker who loves Lena (Zoe Saldana, in a lovely performance). When in the course of these human events Russell must seek justice by tracking down Harlan DeGroat for the final terrible confrontation, we are steeled for the inevitable violence.
But for the audience, a bit of redemption is at hand. Working under the brave and quite eccentric hand of
director and co-writer Scott Cooper, the remarkable actors draw character studies of the men they create. Bale’s loyal, gentle millworker cannot shoot the deer he is hunting. Affleck’s Rodney, even enraged and crushed, cannot bring himself to do ordinary work for a living. Woody Harrelson’s DeGroat is a uniquely monstrous creation. In the midst of awful violence, all three of them deliver their characters through subtle gestures and expressions.
The afterword: The Ramapough Mountain Indians of New Jersey do indeed live on the mountain of the film, 5,000 of them who trace their roots back to the Lenape Indians. Accustomed to generations of indignity, they are outraged at being portrayed as hillbilly lovers of violence at the mountain fights. They say new waves of discrimination have washed over their children since the recent opening of the film, erasing the progress the inhabitants of Stag Mountain have fought for generations to overcome. They claim there are “numerous connections, factual and implied,” while the producers maintain the story is fiction. It is an unfortunate situation now being played out in newspapers.
Despite the terrible violence, despite the subsequent controversy, nothing can dim the amazing trio of performances that propel the movie.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.