When asked about what the term “Independent Cinema” means to the American film industry in 2014 in a recent Criticwire survey I thought immediately of Scott Cooper’s Out Of The Furnace. “It’s an aesthetic descriptor”, I declared, as opposed to “any kind of real movement”. More often than not, within this curious sub-genre, one will find a name star in a work which purports to challenge or test them in some way one might deem to be different to the Hollywood norm, with spectacle exchanged for the subdued.
Out Of The Furnace is the latest of these films, and the latest in a long line of films that look like Bruce Springsteen songs sound. It’s a tradition that began back in 1991, with Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner, which benefitted from a script that was derived from an actual Springsteen song. In recent years we’ve had a real spate of these kind of features. The cinema of Derek Cianfrance is perhaps the most familiar, while Jeff Nichol’s trilogy of Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud have also made their mark. Flannel shirts and Steadicams reign in the land of the faux-American indie flick, and Out Of The Furnace is no different.
The story centres on a pair of brothers, one a hardworking, blue-collar factory dweller, the other a veteran of Bush’s War On Terror who is struggling to readjust to civilian life.In Christian Bale and Casey Affleck Cooper’s film is blessed with an engaging set of dual-protagonists. The leads are excellent, but suffer next to the pantomime of others. An unhinged Woody Harrelson is especially over the top, in turn conflicting heavily with the brooding method of Bale. A craggy roster of backwoods types is filled by genre staples such as Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepard, while Zoe Saldana steps in to the cliched beau role.
It’s the positioning of Saldana, as the one-time girlfriend of one of the brothers that highlights the film’s greatest misgiving. The film aspires towards the epic in scope, with it’s tale purporting to span a greater length of time than is apparent on-screen. A functioning, diegetic ecosystem is glimpsed at, but unsuccessfully portrayed. When compared to a film like The Place Beyond The Pines, which more ably projected the passing of time on it’s cinematic world and inhabitants the lack of success is even more explicit.
Cooper’s picture, lensed by Warrior shooter (another film to which one might compare Out Of The Furnace) Masanobu Takayanagi is aesthetically pleasing, capturing a sense of a dissolving Americana ably, even if the film never quite diverts from the path of the conventions of the kinda-sorta-I-guess-it-is-a-genre. And that’s judgement one might claim of the complete picture: it’s a solid, if unremarkable movie, elevated by a couple of interesting performances.