I am certain almost every rational, mature individual has at some point asked themselves the simple question – what separates man from animal? A question that, at least at first glance, suggests a large number of answers, a significant part of which, however, quickly find their logical refutation, when one digs into the behavioral diversity of the fauna surrounding us and tries to ignore one’s own egocentrism at least for a moment. It’s astounding how many common traits and instincts we share with animals. Carl Sagan himself has made an effort to analyze the similarities and differences in one of his books, so I won’t go into the details here, retelling – unsuccessfully, of course – the branches of his brilliant thought. Instead, I would rather add one paltry argument for the case of man, also making timely use of the opportunity to place an emphasis one of the key concepts that will dominate the text that follows: emotion.
Think about this: among other things, man is the only creature on our planet that has the ability and motivation to bottle up and preserve emotion in time, in various forms and shells. If I had to put it another way, it’s not emotion as a state that is unique to humankind (there’s plenty of examples of the opposite), but our ability to relay it among ourselves, overcoming the limitations of time and space. Chopin’s music, Yeats’ poetry, Claude Monet’s landscapes, all classical artists I haven’t named, have left a shining mark on history precisely for their skill to emotionally affect us through the distance of time. Not so much relaying information, as relaying and sparking emotion.
Some call this form of emotional transfer art and, to some degree, I’m inclined to agree with the definition, although I reserve the right to my own interpretation, because I believe the framework is a bit wider. Far wider, in fact. What has a higher emotional value – Da Vinci’s classical composition, layered in history, or your own child’s squiggly crayon surrealism; a Faberge egg, encrusted with precious metals and stones or the seemingly humble gift from a loved one, with the essence of your relationship condensed in it? My point is that in this type of emotional exchange there are absolutely no limitations. Impact is strictly subjective, often unpredictable and nothing gives such spontaneity to emotions as personal attitude.
Some call this form of emotional transfer art and, to some degree, I’m inclined to agree with the definition, although I reserve the right to my own interpretation, because I believe the framework is a bit wider. Far wider, in fact. What has a higher emotional value – Da Vinci’s classical composition, layered in history, or your own child’s squiggly crayon surrealism; a Faberge egg, encrusted with precious metals and stones or the seemingly humble gift from a loved one, with the essence of your relationship condensed in it? My point is that in this type of emotional exchange there are absolutely no limitations. Impact is strictly subjective, often unpredictable and nothing gives such spontaneity to emotions as personal attitude.
In the following paragraphs I’ll try to recreate emotion. I’ll talk about a movie that carries a devastating emotional charge and that for some reason was never really and fully absorbed by the wide audience. Just like the director who put his soul into the movie, I will try to infuse this review with life. I will make it more personal than everything I’ve ever written or will likely ever write; whether I succeed shall be revealed after the final sentence.
Many will probably ask why this particular film, why out of all the undisputed masterpieces from a plethora of legendary directors I chose this one, almost debut, relatively low-budget movie, so distanced from the contemporary cinematic means of expression. The answer is logical and would hardly surprise anyone – I just took this movie too personally. I saw myself, or at least what I would like to be, in some of the characters, and I recognized people close to me in the fates of others, I felt the doubts, the motivation, the anger and the pain. Each theme the film touches upon adds to my personal philosophy on life and corresponds emotionally to past events in my own existence. The merciless lack of justice in the blows one suffer. The fate, which seems to intentionally test the limits of human resilience. The choices and mistakes we all make that sometimes fundamentally shifts our life’s direction. The blind rage, the coveted vengeance, the burning pain of unrealized dreams and the crushing loss of love and hope, and purpose.
Nothing as it seems
Most cinema lovers have probably seen Out of the Furnace a long time ago and I guess a large portion of them have also long since forgotten it. Even though I can’t excuse them, I partially understand the reasons the film didn’t manage to leave such a deep mark on the collective conscience and was left to age in the archives of cinema history. If you just do a quick internet search, you’ll find that most movie critics are united in the view that Out of the Furnace is a typical representative of the revenge genre, naively evaluating its qualities according to this too narrow and too limiting of a framework. In fact, nothing could be more wrong than this too hasty and frivolous genre positioning. In reality, Out of the Furnace is a movie whose director just uses the genre’s bare bones as a foundation before adding layer after layer of themes deeply saturated in personal attitude that form the fabric of what in its final form I recognize as a masterpiece. That’s why I am perfectly aware that without the proper mood for this kind of film and a specific approach, one could very easily miss the themes skillfully hidden behind the main story thread and thus be unwittingly misled about the movie’s qualities.
Before I start with the main part of my movie analysis, I consider it imperative that I first tell the story of the man behind that film and the peculiar sequence of events that led to it being made, as I believe that this is the only way one can realize and experience the full depth and scale of the feeling that went into this film. I must warn that this time I dare be far more thorough than usual. First, because the story itself requires such an approach and also includes many curious and important details which in most cases have remained outside the critics’ attention and second, because that’s what I have decided.
PART ONE. THE STORY.
Given to fly
I don’t think anyone would dare contest the statement that behind every given success, and also behind every failure, there’s of course the obligatory dose of talent, labor and effort, but also the powerful hand of fate. Whether we call this invisible intervention luck, accident or (divine) providence, it really doesn’t matter. The important thing is that in certain stages of our lives, every one of us has relied and will continue to rely on the favorable turn of events to predetermine their choices, remove obstacles or just point them in the right direction.
This may seem odd to many, but for young actor Scott Cooper such a significant, fateful event was none other than his introduction to Hollywood legend Robert Duvall at the set of the historical drama Gods and Generals in 2002. Up until that point, the only thing Cooper had in his resume were several seconds of screen time in Austin Powers, a minor role in an X-Files episode and some quite dubious prestige-wise appearances in several straight-to-video slops which I don’t think I need to name. Gods and Generals, however, was the first larger project where Cooper had the opportunity to step out of his usual stuntman role and get close to real Hollywood greats, Robert Duvall inarguably being one of them with his 5 Oscar nominations and one win. During filming, they developed an honest and warm relationship that grew into true friendship through the years after the conclusion of the historic epic, so I would not be wrong in saying that in the face of the young actor Robert Duvall found the son he never had, while Cooper got an invaluable mentor, which was just as surprising for himself.
Duvall not only provided the young actor with access to Hollywood’s elite, but also played a major part in Cooper’s decision to turn away from acting and develop his unsuspected talent in a field that is slightly different but at the same time offering a far wider horizon. Encouraged by his older friend, Cooper let loose his hitherto unrevealed gift and wrote the script for his magnificent Crazy Heart, which Duvall himself later decided to produce, providing both the funding for the film and the stellar cast. I won’t go into too much details around Cooper’s directing debut, because this is only in the periphery of the story I want to tell, but I just want to stress how significant of a role Duvall played, giving the needed initial push for his young friend’s career, because Crazy Heart really turned out to be quite an event. With just $7 million invested, the movie grossed nearly $50 million, but in this case the more important thing was the warm reception demonstrated by the critics. Crazy Heart received Oscar nominations in no less than three categories, two of which it won, including the much coveted award for Actor in a Leading Role for our favorite Jeff Bridges. From here on out, the young director had a clear horizon and even though I haven’t had the opportunity to get my information straight from the source, I’m convinced that this peculiar creative evolution has given great pleasure to Robert Duvall, the consiglieri standing in the shadow of this remarkable success.
Two years after his directing debut, Cooper’s patience was finally rewarded – he received a call from none other than Ridley Scott himself, who in his capacity as a producer brought a script to the director’s attention from the Black List of unrealized projects by a guy called Brad Ingelsby.
For those unfamiliar with the so-called Black List, I should quickly point out that this is a rather curious list of about 1,000 scripts whose realization, for one reason or another, has been rejected by the studios in the past 10 years. As for whether ignoring them was justified – you could answer that question yourself, taking into account the fact that nearly 1/3 of the scripts included in the list were later filmed, so far grossing over $25 billion in income, plus gaining recognition in the shape of nearly 50 Academy Awards. I believe you can draw your own conclusions.
So, Ingelsby’s text, included in the aforementioned Black List, was titled “The Low Dweller” and at its core it was a trivial tale of revenge that would be more suited to one of Jason Statham’s conveyor belt movies, had its initial version not included Leonardo DiCaprio for the main role and Ridley Scott himself as director. Anyway, the stellar project was not realized and the script was left to gather dust until that fateful second look. The studio’s traditional interest was not far behind and very soon the guys at Relativity Media once again showed interest in the forsaken title, attracting the initially considered Ridley and DiCaprio on the way, though this time in their capacity as producers. This way Ingelsby’s text quickly landed on young Scott Cooper’s desk for review and maybe for a future realization.
While reviewing the script from Ridley in his home, Cooper felt that he had finally found the potential he had been seeking for so long. What’s more, Ingelsby’s script offered Cooper a wonderful opportunity to integrate a number of fragments from his own life into the story, adding a personal spin both in the presentation of the plot exposition and in his characters’ personalities. This really was an opportunity one shouldn’t miss and even though the idea thoroughly captivated the young director, he did something unusual and seemingly quite illogical – he rejected the proposal, quoting his desire to make a much more personal and deep movie than the initial version of the script allowed him. This move was actually a very elegant bluff by Cooper and as you will learn alter, this was far from the only time the director would resort to such a gamble.
I have no idea what caused the producers to react positively to Cooper’s ultimatum. Maybe Ridley himself had played his part in this, for as a director, he has repeatedly been put in a position to defend his views, but it’s a fact that Cooper, who was probably just as surprised from this, got the green light to reshape the script at his discretion. Fueled by the freedom given to him by the producers and charged with ideas that literally sprang out of his mind, Cooper took to fulfilling his difficult task of implementing a part of his own past in Ingelsby’s much simpler and schematic script.
My father`s son
Many times I’ve tried to find a weak link in the Out of the Furnace script and each and every time I have come to the conclusion that given the themes it deals with and the goals it sets for itself, the film just doesn’t have one. In his striving to tell his far more complex and personal retelling of the story of a former prisoner seeking revenge, Scott Cooper changed literally every aspect of the original Ingelsby script and there is no doubt in my mind that it is exactly in this process, so crucial to the project, that all the brilliantly realized decisions were born, which would later provoke me to dive into this text. This, of course, raises the logical and not particularly tactful (at least to me) question – what part of Cooper’s script is directly influenced by his life and to what extent does it reflect his personal experiences, because it is more than clear that in so many scenes, thoroughly infused with emotion, not everything could just be attributed to the writer’s imagination.
I wouldn’t want to speculate, as Cooper is particularly reticent where the details of his personal life are concerned, but in a series of interviews with the director it is hinted that to a large extent the characters of the Baze brothers and the man fate has them clash with (Harlan DeGroat) are a reflection of real persons that have left an unbelievable and, to a certain degree, tragic mark on the young director’s life. Cooper himself comes from a family of generations of miners and steel workers, so even in the context of the movie’s title we see the personal commitment clearly stand out. And there’s more. In one of his rare revelations, the director admits that like his main character (Russell Baze), he himself had a brother, then in another adding that in time he knew the terrible pain of losing a close relative. The exact details are never revealed, but I believe that based on this information, somewhat haphazardly thrown out by Cooper, everyone can rearrange the puzzle and connect the dots for themselves, finding an answer to the question to what extent the Out of the Furnace script is influenced by the director’s life, because even though I have my own interpretation of this, I would personally rather not burden others with my own assumptions.
All or None
When Cooper was building the personalities of his characters as part of the process of rewriting the script, none of them had such clearly distinguishable contours like his main character Russell Baze. Apart from the fact that the director had a serious advantage in terms of concept by using someone very close to him as the moral prototype of the older of the Baze brothers, from the beginning he could picture that role filled only by Christian Bale. Even though he had never worked with him, nor even knew the actor, the more details he added to his character, the stronger Cooper believed that there simply wasn’t another option for the main role. So the moment the script was finalized, the first thing the director did was to make contact with the superstar in an attempt to recruit him for the needs of his project. Even though at the time Christian Bale was working on the latest part of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, he still found the time to carefully read the script Cooper gave him. Here, once again, the young director used an ultimatum as a means to achieve his goals and after enthusiastically presenting his ideas, he assured Bale that without his participation, he himself would have to leave the project, leaving the film’s fate at the hands of the producers. Of course, Bale was deeply impressed by the status given to him in Cooper’s project and he also instinctively felt that the script’s potential was nothing to scoff at, but unfortunately his overbooked calendar didn’t allow him to do anything else but politely decline to participate in the movie, leaving the deeply disappointed director at a dead end.
However, fate had very different plans for Scott Cooper. The script really burrowed itself very deep into Bale’s mind and even though for the better part of the day the actor was busy saving the world as Bruce Wayne, the tragic story of Russell Baze gradually and completely captivated him. At that time Nolan was shooting The Dark Knight Rises in Pittsburgh which, as luck would have it, was just 10-15 minutes away from Braddock, the small and rundown town that was the center of events in Cooper’s script. Something made Bale visit it in his free time and feel the atmosphere of this archaic little corner lacking the dynamic of modern megapolises, and later drove him to call Cooper just to wish him luck, thinking that the project had long since begun with another star taking the role of Russell Baze. The director, utterly surprised by the call, answered that the project was no longer on the agenda for him, because as he himself had assured Bale, he just couldn’t see a way for the movie to be realized with another actor in the main role. Whatever second thoughts Bale had until that point, I believe it was precisely this conversation that shifted the balance in favor of Cooper, strengthening the actor’s motivation to rearrange his schedule and eventually be the first star to join the Out of the Furnace team.
While I give you time to comprehend this absurdly fortuitous sequence of events, I’ll veer off for a moment, because it’s very important to note how significant for Cooper and how fateful for the project the inclusion of Christian Bale was. Up to that point Scott Cooper had had the privilege of directing his first and only film with stars of the rank of Jeff Bridges, Colin Farrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Robert Duvall, and with all due respect to these undoubtedly exceptional and serious names, after all Bale fell into an entirely different category of actors. With a 25-year career behind his back at the time Cooper made his offer, Bale was one of the most courted actors in the 35-40 age range. His filmography painted him as an actor equally liked both for highly mainstream blockbusters (Terminator Salvation, Dark Night Trilogy) and for productions with a humbler budget, while Bale himself wasn’t afraid to experiment with various incarnations, sometimes requiring an extreme physical transformation, one of which had already won him an Academy Award. That is why whichever way you look at it, signing on one of the most talented and lucrative contemporary actors was a success of fundamental importance to Cooper.
After recruiting Bale, Cooper’s project carried an entirely different weight. A popular young director, a script infused with personal attitude, the brightest possible Hollywood star in the main role and the more than impressive names of Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio as producers. All this opened an exceptionally wide horizon for the production, and because of that filling the other roles with quality was now just a formality. Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Sam Sheppard one by one joined the exceptional cast, providing Cooper with an opportunity that few directors can say they have. And let’s not forget this was still Scott Cooper’s second film.
As you can guess, such a stellar cast really wasn’t cheap. Just Christian Bale’s contract cost the producers nearly half of the planned $22 million budget and given the fact the film was still in pre-production, expenses were yet to pile up. In order to cut some costs, for a while they discussed the possibility of filming most of the movie in a studio setting, but Cooper firmly rejected such an option. As a former actor, the director more than anything insisted on placing his stars in a real setting, “in the field”, knowing that this approach would undoubtedly reflect on their concentration and will help them go deeper into the characters. Filming in Braddock went on for nearly a month and a half, turning into a real attraction for the locals, and how could it not, when a town with a population of about two thousand is suddenly visited by an impressive filming crew and a cast with Oscar nominations going into the double digits.
When at the very beginning of this text I drew attention to humankind’s ability to preserve and relay emotion through time, I was mostly (but not exclusively) driven by the influence music has had on me. No other manifestation of man’s age-old impetus to seek and find self-expression releases such a powerful and unadulterated emotional reaction the way music does and nothing else can create or reinforce a certain emotional state in such an elegant and spontaneous way. That’s why I’m guessing it would come as nobody’s surprise if I reveal that while Cooper was trying to breathe life into his script, he used precisely these qualities of music as one of the sources for his inspiration. Isolated from all outside irritants, the director let himself be guided into the world he was striving to build by the melodies of his favorite performers. Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young even Enrico Caruso’s classical performances played a role when Cooper had to paint the dramatic scenes of violence in his script. And in order to clearly show just how much did music mark the creative process, maybe it should be mentioned that at a certain time the director even changed the original name of his script from The Low Dweller to Under a Black Sun, inspired by Soundgarden’s emblematic single, “Black Hole Sun”. According to this early version of the script, Chris Cornel’s song was even supposed to play on a jukebox in one of the planned scenes, but Cooper decided that the well-known melody’s impact would only distract the viewers’ attention and he removed this distinguishable musical fragment early on.
However, the director didn’t give up on his impulsion to instill a familiar and emotion-laden musical accent into the film, and this time his idea was to predispose the viewer from the very beginning, announcing up front the dominant mood of the film. After many hours of selection, his choice was “Release”, the last song from Pearl Jam’s debut album Ten, which many musical critics call one of the greatest debuts in history. More than 20 years had passed since Ten came out and in that time a very strong emotional link had been established between Pearl Jam’s iconic music and the so-called Generation X, to which the director himself belonged. Much like to the story that Cooper was striving to tell witch such passion and dedication, Eddie Vedder’s song contained in it emotion that was in and of itself sufficient to merit filming a movie, because in addition to being dedicated to the pain from the loss of the biological father Eddie never got to know, the song corresponded in a natural way to the mood of the other members of the group, still trying to get over the death of their friend Andrew Wood from their previous band Mother Love Bone.
Cooper had no doubt that he had found the perfect musical announcement for his film and the only thing left was to try and negotiate the use of the song with the man who owned the rights – Eddie Vedder. There was, however, a significant problem. Up until that point Eddie had never allowed “Release” to be used for any commercial purposes. What’s more, driven by purely sentimental reasons, the Pearl Jam front man refused to even allow publishing the lyrics to his song. His ardent attitude about “Release” went so far that in the original issue of Hall Leonard’s guitar score “Release” was the only song that never had its text included.
You can see the task before the director really was a serious challenge. In the creator’s mind, however, Pearl Jam’s song was an important part of the puzzle, so there was no room for backing down. Armed with an early working version of his movie, the director travelled to Seattle to personally meet his idol. In the emerald city fate was once again kind to him because not only did Eddie Vedder turn out to be a passionate fan of Crazy Heart, but they also discovered they share many common views on art, music and the world as a whole which later evolved into a true friendship. Cooper’s real triumph came after he showed his still raw version of the film at a special screening. Vedder was shaken. The film grabbed the musician’s attention so thoroughly that not only did he allow the use of his song, but also decided to re-record Release for the first time in over 20 years just for the needs of the film.
I’ll veer off a little here because there is a tiny, yet very significant detail which many wouldn’t notice, unless it’s specifically pointed out to them. Eddie Vedder’s original song was written as a kind of a son’s confession to a father and I guess everyone who’s listened to Release at least once couldn’t remain unmoved by the bouquet of emotion, powerfully compressed into the lyrics. However, music is an expression of what cannot be reproduced with words, so I will not attempt the impossible by describing the feeling created by listening to this song, but will instead focus on the specifics.
The second and third verse of Release start with the son’s appeal: “Oh, dear Dad, can you see me now?” In the new recording of the song, however, Eddie dares to almost imperceptibly change exactly this address and in the third verse the phrase now went like this: “Oh, dear Rod, can you see me now?” This really was an incredible and unexpected gesture from Eddie Vedder, but such a cosmetic change to the lyrics simply wasn’t enough for him. Using the wave of emotion that Cooper’s film had unlocked, Vedder continued working in his recording studio and recorded a whole soundtrack of original songs, specifically for Out of the Furnace, following the example of what he did several years earlier for Sean Penn and his Into the Wild.
Cooper was shocked. In his task to negotiate the rights to “Release”, the director got not only the updated song of his biggest idol, but an entire soundtrack, specifically composed for and dedicated to him. I don’t know about you, but personally I can’t imagine a more unexpected and fortunate gift of fate. And here I imagine those who have seen the movie raising their eyebrows in surprise and rushing to find the soundtrack for proof of my words, but I’m afraid their efforts would be in vain, because… Cooper surprisingly declined! Yes, shocking as it is, Scott Cooper indeed declined Eddie Vedder’s gesture, citing the same reasons that discouraged him from including Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” in his project – he was convinced that the influence Eddie’s iconic voice would have on the audience would distract them from what was happening on the screen. It’s hard for me to imagine the inner struggle Scott Cooper must have faced while making this incredibly difficult choice, but this move once again shows the director’s fanatic attention to detail, while he was trying to breathe life into his film.
Do the Evolution
The rights to Release were just half the task, however. Now Cooper had to decide how to fill his scenes with music. Initially, the director opted for Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias, known for his work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Skin I Live In, and even though, as Cooper himself has said, the Spaniard wrote a truly wonderful score, he had to replace him with British composer Dickon Hinchliffe because the result didn’t correspond all that well to the director’s vision of his film.
With Dickon Hinchliffe, however, Scott Cooper hit the jackpot. The former founding member of British indie rock band Tindersticks was an accomplished instrumentalist. His skills in playing the guitar, violin, banjo and piano helped him display a unique composing style while in the past Dickon’s name had been behind the music in movies like Winter’s Bone, Texas Killing Fields and Rampart, and what’s curious was that at the time, the composer was working on the music of the wonderful Locke with Tom Hardy. The Brit truly delivered a specific sound style and that was exactly the musical accent the director was striving for.
The tasks Cooper gave Hinchliffe left no room for doubt – the director really didn’t want a necessarily melancholic sound, but something more life-asserting and intensive that tries to express the changes in a man’s life in sounds. To further aid the composer in his work, Cooper advised Hinchliffe to try and follow the musical framework set by Release and at the same time try and add in instruments typical of the Appalachian region. One of Cooper’s main requirements, however, that motivated him when making some very difficult decisions up to that point, was that no original element, nor camera movement, nor individual director’s style, nor the music (for which he specifically warned Hinchliffe) … absolutely nothing should dominate over the narrative and the acting. Hinchliffe had to find that balance himself, so that picture and sound would flow in tandem for the needs of the story, without any unnecessary disproportion.
The composer started recording in the legendary Abbey Road studios in London and I dare say the final result of his work is simply phenomenal. Adhering strictly to Cooper’s directions, Dickon infused his music with the low tones typical of “Release” and also added in the characteristic sound of the banjo. I’ve really spent an incredible number of hours listening to this soundtrack and I firmly believe it is one of those rare examples where the music not only works wonderfully in the context of the movie, but also lives its own life outside of it.
On 4 December 2013, Out of the Furnace started airing in a little over 2,000 theaters in the States. The box office in the opening weekend was devastating to put it mildly – just $5 million of generated revenue, and the bad news for Cooper and the producers were yet to come, as the results from the second week showed a shocking drop of 50%, which was a clear indication where the production was headed. Leonardo DiCaprio’s calls to viewers to notice the movie he had produced didn’t help and so December closed with the disappointing financial result of almost $11 million, followed by January, which managed to add just $200,000 to the paltry box office. Even though Relativity Media prudently negotiated $16 million for the rights for international distribution, the hopes for viewings outside of the States to save the day also didn’t materialize, because the film fared more than tragically around the world – just $4 million in international revenue, which cemented Out of the Furnace’s final result at $15,5 million worldwide at a budget of $22 million. Unsurprisingly, Cooper was crushed. After all the perfectionism surrounding the production, after all the personal attitude invested in it, his film proved a disheartening box office flop and that wasn’t even the end of it, because most critics were also horrifyingly unmoved. Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer indicated a shaky 54% approval by critics, which seemed to generally visualize the hesitant and timid viewer reaction to the film.
It’s hard for me to analyze the reasons for this failure impartially, but I have to admit that all the prerequisites for such a development were present. First and foremost, one of the main factors in the foreseen failure of Out of the Furnace was expectations or, to be more precise, the lack thereof. The movie’s relatively lackluster marketing campaign focused on presenting it through trailers that accented mostly the revenge element, which in reality was quite far from the truth. So instead of an intense, action-oriented crime thriller, viewers were confounded by a hard, multi-layer drama that in most cases I would imagine didn’t meet their initial expectations at all. Second, the choice of premier date (4 December) also played a major role in the failure. Given the positioning of the premiere in December, it’s obvious that producers intended to charge at the awards season, but that (as evidenced in this case) often proves to be a double-edged sword, because Cooper’s film was literally suffocated by the December blockbusters. The pre-holiday spirit at the end of the year has always given a serious advantage to family-oriented movies and given its rather heavy themes, Out of the Furnace just wasn’t able to compete with juggernauts like Frozen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and let’s not forget that American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street also premiered that month.
Amidst all those easily foreseeable preconditions for failure the logical question arises – is it possible that Out of the Furnace’s creators have so thoughtlessly not considered the risks and have themselves slid their production toward its predictable failure, through such a sequence of questionable decisions? As a fan, it is difficult for me to answer this question, but I’m still inclined to believe that we’re not talking about foolish decisions here at all, but a very consciously undertaken risk. Given the success of Crazy Heart, it had been logical to assume that Out of the Furnace would cause the same positive resonance as nobody from the core team behind the production hadn’t considered that the film could cause such an irrational indifference.
PART TWO. THE FILM.
If you but glance at some of the reviews going around the internet, regardless of whether they would be classified as positive or negative, in almost all cases you’ll find identical arguments concerning the qualities of Out of the Furnace. The majority of critics are united in the view that despite the actors’ astounding incarnations and the undisputed cinematographic merits, the film presents sluggish development and that’s it. The paradox is that this really is the most frequent and, in many cases, only argument backing the reviewers’ low score, which I personally consider utter madness. Yes, knowingly or not, Cooper’s film really was promoted in the trailers as a classic action-oriented revenge story, truly conducive to this kind of interpretation, but everyone who has had the pleasure to see the movie should have come to the revelation that since half of the movie features character development and the revenge is positioned just in the last third, it’s doubtful that this is where Out of the Furnace’s core resides. I’m far from thinking that only I and a happy minority have managed to touch the depth Cooper has put into his film, but I’m quite close to thinking that for most viewers it was just all too easy to accept the simplest possible explanation, without looking for a reason to see the story from a slightly different perspective.
We’ve commented before on this website on some directors’ tendencies to aggressively engage the attention of their viewers right off the bat in their opening scenes and it should be noted again that those really are of paramount importance to the narrative as in most cases their function is to set the tone and mood of the film and sometimes lead the audience to some of the peculiarities of its main characters The first scene in Out of the Furnace is no exception. It has the same intended purpose, but in this specific case it serves an additional purpose which I dare say is very cleverly devised and I guess very difficult to implement – in just a few minutes the scene, on top of everything else, completely succeeds in building up the character of the main antagonist, without requiring any later asides about his past or motivation. I believe this writing approach is especially effective, because it frees up much needed screen time for the director to fully develop the characters and relations of the other participants in the story. However, let us trace the amount of information this first scene manages to relay and what its exact meaning is in the context of the story:
Cooper’s opening shot presents us with a wide view of a seemingly calm evening atmosphere of a drive-in cinema. The camera smoothly pans down, giving the observant viewer ample time to recognize the somewhat mediocre horror flick The Midnight Meat Train (2008), then settles the viewers’ attention on the personality of Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) and the violence-deformed world he inhabits.
Now, at the very beginning of my analysis, I would dare make a not-so-brief digression, because I believe there will be no better moment than this for an in-depth view of the main antagonist’s character and an attempt to paint his portrait of sorts, based on the information provided by this brief opening scene, intentionally dedicated to him. To do this in detail, however, I believe I will need to take you back to the years of your carefree childhood to make you remember that weird kid in your group that for a number of reasons (most of them now forgotten) had always given you the shivers. That same not necessarily asocial kid that you accidentally found smiling thoughtfully while tearing the wings off of flies, torturing helpless pets or just visibly feeling an unhealthy affinity to unprovoked violence. Usually societal norms of behavior nip such unacceptable conduct in the bud, but this metamorphosis sometimes happens only on the surface and through the years the youngster learns to skillfully hide his sadistic tendencies, letting them loose only in specific moments, lest he receives the lasting stigma of society. In a more extreme environment conductive to violence, however, this type of behavioral mimicry can prove completely unnecessary and then the overflowing aggression of this empathy-lacking creature becomes the norm, concluding the sorrowful transformation of the violence prone individual into a genuine sociopath.
Harlan DeGroat is the embodiment of this term. A monster with a very deformed idea of conscience and morality whose destructive pathologies were cultivated, nourished and expanded in the natural and probably only environment capable of providing him a dominant position among the similarly degraded dredges of society. This is the character that Scott Cooper wants and has to present in his first scene, and with such decisiveness, so as not to generate absolutely any questions about the character’s motivation. It is widely known that sociopaths’ symptoms include numerous common signs, but Cooper chooses to display the most emblematic ones for this type of psychological disorder, and in a situation that doesn’t provoke their appearance at all. And that is what’s most shocking in this scene. Not the brutal burst of violence, not the tendency to humiliate for some perverse pleasure, but the uncalled for action in the whole situation which seems to drop out of nowhere. That is also the reason that every appearance of Harlan DeGroat after that causes the viewer such discomfort, mainly due to the shocking unpredictability of the character and the threat he carries.
Many people compare Woody Harrelson’s magnificent performance as Harlan DeGroat in Out of the Furnace to his role as Mickey Knox in Oliver Stone’s masterpiece Natural Born Killers with the argument that the two characters are practically identical, but I really must share my skepticism regarding this utterly superficial argument. Mickey Knox is a collective, very overexposed and somewhat parodying character which aims to entice sympathy and compassion, rather than disgust, while Harlan DeGroat is a completely realistic and full-blooded underground type who rose to the top of the criminal hierarchy solely due to his stark affinity to violence. Cooper’s wonderfully written script strives to not burden its character with the rather common (and in this case, unnecessary) theatrics and although most of the time DeGroat’s personality is simple and absolutely straightforward, a little further on I will direct your attention to some very subtle nuances that surprisingly uncover the thoroughly veiled human part of DeGroat’s personality.
Maybe I should say a few words for Woody himself here, because although the always fantastic Viggo Mortensen and Billy Bob Thornton were considered to play Harlan DeGroat – and would have most likely also handled it wonderfully – I dare say without any exaggeration that in Out of the Furnace Woody Harrelson delivers one of his best performances ever. Later on, he himself admits that he hopes to never again need to portray such a character, because although in this case he didn’t do the method acting typical of Christian Bale, even the brief transformation into a genuine sociopath was a stressful experience. To me, personally, Woody has always seemed too thick-skinned for me to start worrying about his psychological well-being, so I’ll take his words with a condescending smile, as I’m sure the guy can play virtually any role (no matter how serious), then down half a bottle of whiskey in his trailer and leave the set with a 24-carrat, ear-to-ear grin.
But I’ll get back to the movie now, because it is exactly at the end of this brutal opening scene that we hear Stone Gossard’s drawn out guitar riff for the first time, announcing the beginning of Release and at the same time the start of this magnificent story that Cooper wants to tell.
With Pearl Jam’s song, the setting and the mood, suddenly change. The several (obligatory) panoramic shots of Braddock gradually lead into the arena of the events to come, after which Cooper’s focus is now settled on the daily life of the Baze family and mainly on the character of Russell (Christian Bale).
At first glance, there is nothing unusual about Russell Baze. He isn’t a superhero gifted with mysterious powers, nor a detective faced with a heinous crime, nor a prominent member of a gangster organization known for its cruelty. Russell Baze lives in Braddock, a small industrial town, forgotten by civilization, and like the generations before him, he works in the local steel mill – the town’s constantly burning heart, seeped in rust and toxic fumes. The young man has tied his future with that of beautiful child educator Lena and the two share their common dreams for living together, having offspring and living to a ripe old age. He gets by humbly and monotonously – the only way of life the town allows him outside the fiery embrace of the Furnace, combining the exhausting double shifts at the plant with the care for his own father, wasting away from a deadly illness, the attention to his loved one and the uneasiness related to the trouble his unruly younger brother Rodney is in.
The previous paragraph, albeit slightly embellished, roughly encompasses the information that the first 15 minutes of Out of the Furnace convey. Everyone who has seen the movie will agree that even though the focus is predominantly on Russell, the script invests time and effort in building the personalities of the two brothers. It is precisely these characters who are at the center of the whole story and whose actions (and decisions) unlock the sequence of the tragic events and therefore it is completely logical that the main function of the secondary characters is to gradually add to their personalities. I am in no way saying that the characters of Lena (Zoe Saldana), John Petty (Willem Dafoe), Chief Barnes (Forest Whitaker), uncle Red (Sam Sheppard) and Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) are schematically built, quite the contrary – in each of these wonderfully developed characters the required dose of motivation shines through, but their main purpose is rather to provoke reactions from the two brothers or to direct the flow of the action in the direction Cooper has determined. This function of the secondary characters, however, seems to serve more as fine polishing, because (at least to me) the main moral parameters in the two brothers’ personalities materialize mostly in their mutual interaction.
Brotherly relations and relations in general between kids born of the same parental couple are very specific and delicate, an in many regards one could say that they are one of the most complicated and intricate relations ever. The particular elements in the development of the younger generation could be directly dependent on a multitude of factors – the total number of children in the family, birth order, sex and the age difference between them, but the remarkable thing is that they follow the same model almost always. In most cases the firstborn grows up with more conservative views and disposition, they strive for influence, taking responsibility and often shape out to be leaders who respect and honor family values. Of course, all that is very much connected to the environment and the individual, personal experience, but in a general sense, the trend is more or less this. With children born later, however, the situation is slightly different. The position of the youngest predisposes to having a lot more authoritative figures, which in turn, to some degree, caused the development various types of complexes, including the feeling of inferiority and dependence. Just by virtue of their birth, those born later unknowingly develop almost an obligation to catch up to their older sibling. And because those born later have the natural privilege of being cared for not just by their parents, but by their older siblings, this position, while comfortable to them, could in the future establish the development of a more frivolous, even reckless behavior.
This is precisely the approximate psychological model that Cooper intuitively – or maybe supported by his personal experience – follows when building the characters of the Baze brothers. And in order to follow how all of this communicates with the character or Rodney Baze, I would like to slightly change the scale, looking at the issue in a somewhat wider spectrum.
Several fundamental philosophical terms exist for which humankind, while trying for millennia, still hasn’t found a specific and sufficiently well-grounded definition. Take HAPPINESS, for instance – to this day there exists no specific definition of happiness or a way to objectively measure it. Yes, we all know it is the higher good, the emotional state that to some extend motivates any given human behavior, but in actuality no one can encapsulate it in a brief enough and indisputable shell, simply because happiness cannot be measured. It is more of an illusion, a blurry desert mirage, that a person staring into the future is trying to reach, not knowing that happiness exists solely in the past. That’s right, it exists in the childhood memories and games, in youth and parents’ laughter, in summer family walks, in the first tentative kiss, as well as in the tender embrace of one’s child… happiness is there… it lives in every insignificant memory of our past, without us realizing that each hurried step we take forward in an attempt to reach its reflection takes us further away from its real and tangible aspects.
I think that Rodney Baze’s initial drama is born precisely in this segment. Rodney’s desperate drive to escape the clutches of his past is blinding his entire view of the world. For him there is no goal, not even a vague definition of happiness that would transform the illusion into something more than a pale mist on the horizon. Unlike his older brother, Rod’s ambition and his innate drive to prove himself have evolved into pure disdain for the limitations offered by his hometown. Torn between his desire to break off of the stream in which his ancestral history has submerged him, the younger brother never really succeeds in finding his place in the world that surrounds him.
Many people would explain the state of freefall in which the young Baze brother finds himself with the symptoms of the post-traumatic disorder caused by his missions in Iraq, but I’m not that convinced of the correctness of this argument, because I interpret his missions to be not so much the reason as they are the consequence of this peculiar identity crisis. In Rodney’s tours abroad one can also see glimpses of his desperate attempt to resist the fate that pushes him to follow in his father’s predetermined footsteps, and this, seemingly unbeknownst to him, draws him from one hell and into another.
Indeed, war isn’t one of the directly referenced themes of Out of the Furnace, but its reflections on the psyche are definitely being explored. It is common knowledge that the horrors of war deform one’s personal perception in the most brutal and undisputable way and since the psyche is constantly looking for ways to adapt accordingly to the needs and the environment, once aggressively recalibrated to an extreme survival mode, it is exceptionally difficult, maybe even virtually impossible for it to be restored to its original parameters. You probably realize what an inconceivable burden is Rodney Baze stacking up on his shoulders with each of his tours and the cruel thing in the whole situation is that even before there is sufficient time for him to shake the experience and suffer through all the symptoms of his unbalanced mind, Rodney returns home and is wept up in the next insidious trap of growing up that is typical for people his age.
At around 30 years of age (and in some cases slightly later) many people go through a process of contemplating their own existence. Metaphorically speaking, this is an imaginary line, separating life “before” and “after”, where carefree youth gives way to maturity and this begins the period of reevaluation for the successes and failures that have marked one’s life to this point, as well as the time for setting entirely new goals and values. Of course, some lucky people are in full sync with their past and their future prospects, but this is about the others (I believe much more numerous) who begin an uneasy look into themselves, searching for the reasons for their failures so far or just asking themselves if this is the life they want to live. I’m certain many people understand what I’m talking about. It is no accident that this delicate time is characterized by ending years-long relationships, difficult divorces, firings, sudden professional changes or just a pronounced internal discomfort. If it goes on for long enough, such a systematic and exhausting self-flagellation often ends with the self-destructing symptoms of deep depression, unless one of the most effective (and controversial) defense mechanisms known to man activates soon – ANGER.
At this point probably a large portion of the readers of this text will raise their eyebrows in surprise over the positive connotation with which I speak of this exceptionally irrational and destructive emotion and although I am tempted to give a slightly more detailed explanation of the reasons for my warm feelings regarding anger, I promise that I will come back to that a little later, not only because anger has an important place in the context of the story, but also because I admit I really like this emotion, so very unjustly condemned by the majority.
There exists a rather famous quote by writer Sophie de Segur that says “anger is a weapon of impotence”. I believe we would be hard pressed to find someone who would not express agreement with the veracity of such a statement, and furthermore, all of us, to some degree, have been a victim of anger’s destructive forces. Our own system of values has evolved based on the idea that due to its pronounced destructive nature, it needs to be suppressed at all costs and there’s certainly nothing unnatural about that. Even the Christian canon has set a place for anger among its seven deadly sins, giving the privileged role of virtue to its natural counterpart – humility.
You would agree, however, that the mechanism of anger wouldn’t have survived through the millions of years of evolution, if it didn’t simultaneously offer significant advantages in favor of survival. I am certain that if you think about it, you will find that anger is in fact an emotion whose main purpose is to send a clear enough message for change. If one exercises sufficient self-control and manages to overcome the immediate impulse of transforming anger into aggression (a physical expression of the emotion), one could neutralize almost all negative manifestations and reach a stage of evaluation and analysis of the reasons for the emergence of the anger, which in turn would lead to a lasting and constructive change. You see that when you look at it that way, anger appears as an incredibly powerful motivator, I would even say it is the most powerful of all, because even if we leave the micro framework and expand the scope of our view of life, we find this highly controversial emotion at the base of every historical event, rebellion, revolution and social or political change.
I’m getting back to the movie, however, as I believe anger is present as a theme in Out of the Furnace in exactly that kind of light. With Rodney Baze, emotion exists as nothing else but precisely an imperative for change. The only reaction against the large number of various psychological barriers by which the character is burdened or if we were to rephrase Sophie de Segur, his only weapon against impotence. Anger is Rodney’s constant companion, the fire that smolders and doesn’t let him give in to apathy and whose destructive potential is regularly channeled outward through the series of fistfights organized by John Petty. One has to recognize that whether because of what he’s done in Iraq or his inability to find his way out, the fights that Rodney participates in are not just a peculiar way to vent, but also act as a kind of self-punishment in an attempt to reach a kind of redemption and at the same time – the harmony with oneself, so desired and yet, so illusionary.
If we accept that the opening scene at the drive-in offers the most copious amount of information for Harlan DeGroat’s personality, the shots that best diagnose the delicate condition Rodney is in are contained in the confrontation between the two brothers in their father’s house, which ends in the younger one’s sudden outburst. It is precisely in this scene that thanks to his brother’s uncontrollable furious outburst, Russell identifies the problem for the first time in its true depth and scope. The escalation of Rodney’s anger is so spontaneous and powerful that it neutralizes all chances for a reaction. The stupefied Russell really can’t do anything but watch his younger brother unload his emotional baggage in the most primal way possible, realizing that even if he wanted to, he cannot perform any kind of counteraction… not against such a devastating force of nature like the painfully suppressed anger.
That scene, however, is crucial not only because of the violent emotional release from Rodney, but also because it marks the end of his passive stance on the problems that have been accumulating for years, as well as the beginning of his peculiar catharsis. His anger unlocks the series of mechanisms and actions required in the search for change, and precisely those actions are expressed in Rodney’s decision to look to organize one final, high-stakes match which would serve as a dividing line in his life “before” and “after”.
You can see for yourself how multilayered of a character is Rodney Baze and given the multitude of demons he has to battle, I would say that in every other story he would draw most of the attention to himself. In Out of the Furnace, however, his task, aside from being a catalyst for a huge portion of events, is limited to him being a sort of a counterpoint to his brother, because Rodney is everything Russell isn’t and I believe that it is precisely this contrast between their personalities that helps us fully appreciate the merits of one and the weaknesses of the other.
If up until this point, reviewing Rodney Baze’s character, we managed to get to anger as an end-product of his internal struggle, things with his brother Russell are much more complicated and convoluted. Since the very beginning of the film, Scott Cooper strives to show his main character in a state of inner peace and harmony with himself. A kind of a “ground zero” where, through the prism of the coming painful losses, the actual dimensions of the accompanying internal conflicts can materialize. In order to explain the nature of these internal conflicts, however, especially the reaction to them, I believe it is of paramount importance to first sketch up a basic psychological portrait of Russell Baze, then throughout this analysis we would try to gradually build upon this outline until we have a fully fleshed-out image and we find the logic and motivation behind every action or reaction.
For this purpose, I would like to draw attention to a very specific feature of Russell Baze’s character, which Scott Cooper tries very skillfully and elegantly to emphasize in the first half of Out of the Furnace. Notice, if you please – in every scene that does not require the presence of one of his closest people or a key character related to the family, Russell Baze is alone. Whether he is working at the steel mill or silently changing at the end of his shift or winding down with a drink in John Petty’s bar, Russell shares in no additional company. Cooper even dares to literally draw attention to this detail through the line one of the prisoners to Russell which is also a prelude to the following physical confrontation: “What’s up, homie? You fucking quiet. You walk the yard, you don’t talk to nobody.” And truly, almost since the beginning of the film Russell Baze’s tendency for solitude stands out and I believe it is more than obvious that the director is trying to build the image of his character according to a specific personality archetype which acts as a very valuable hint to those who wish to understand how Christian Bale’s character functions.
Let me explain:
It is common knowledge that the terms “extrovert” and “introvert” mark the two extremes around which the base personality typology is constructed. We can all be positioned in various points along this imaginary gradient and although in most cases one aspect of a personality dominates over the other, depending on the way we perceive and interact with the world, we are classified in accordance with one of the two divergent personality models. I believe it is important to note that this is not about a behavioral norm, acquired on the basis of some personal experience or external environment, but genetically inherent characteristics that are almost impossible to be subsequently corrected. Meaning, this is something you are born with and that’s it. No right to choose. And while extroverts are personalities whose sensory perceptions are entirely open to the world, communication and social contact, introverts are silently focused mostly within themselves. The skill to find comfort in loneliness and achieve impressive control over their emotions helps them to focus analytically on the depth of their problems and, objectively evaluating the details on the periphery, to produce in most cases suitable solutions, which often proves unachievable by the typical extroverts with their strong dependence on their current disposition.
You see that if we apply the introvert archetype to Russell’s profile and complete it with the distinctive features (that we previously touched upon) typical of the firstborn, this will begin to form a decent idea of a base personality that presupposes an affinity to develop a very specific set of qualities and values which we will later witness masterfully expanded to predetermine and provide logical arguments for the character’s reaction.
In interviews dedicated to Out of the Furnace, Cooper has often described his main character with the simple “good guy”. This extremely terse description seems to most accurately define the essence of a man whose value system makes him place his life in service of his loved ones, but… think about it, what does being a “good guy” mean, exactly? I’m sure everyone who has reached this paragraph would readily call themselves such (the others are clearly bad guys), but the truth is that a person has no way of knowing how undeviating they are from their principles before being placed under conditions of an extreme emotional load, a hard choice or a critical situation. Those are exactly the moments when they are capable to either take the masks off and put forward the entire varied palette of complexes, weaknesses and fears, or display unsuspected strength and rare psychological resilience.
There exists a whole slew of romantic quotes that all cover the theme of how the story of free people is never written by fate, but by their own choices and even though I myself am more positively predisposed to such wisdom-infused aphorisms, I have to admit that those of this type leave something to be desired, as there are moments where fate just doesn’t give you a choice. Life is utterly indifferent and unpredictable in its regularities so I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that given the sudden and uncalled for turn of Russell Baze’s life, the main villain in Out of the Furnace seems to be not the figure of Harlan DeGroat, but rather the incorporeal hand of fate. Because see how each of the peripheral characters in the film becomes a victim of nothing else but the choices they make. Fate grants each of them a chance to avoid their doom while Russell is not only deprived of the privilege of controlling the direction of his life, but is burdened with the need to stoically suffer the consecutive whips of fate for a long time afterwards. And that is the ultimate test for every human being. To not just be lead astray, but to irrevocably lose your horizon. To become a silent witness of the collapse of everything you have slowly and painstakingly built until this moment, and still not allow your system of values to crumble, while also preserving the unshakable faith in your own principles.
Now is the time for me to draw attention to something extremely curious in the film’s structure – from the opening scenes, where we gradually come in Russell Baze’s life, to the moment of the unfortunate road accident that took the lives of the two innocent victims, Cooper’s script follows the plot development in perfect sequence. Immediately after the emotional scene on the road, however, Cooper transports us to the prison, obviously skipping a large chunk of time which, you’ll agree, leaves a lot of room for interpretation regarding what happened in this timespan. Indeed, in the conversations between the two brothers during the visits, we get a vague idea for what is happening outside, including Lena’s strange unwillingness to visit her beloved (I will come back to this element a little later), but at first glance this is highly insufficient, given the rational issues that could arise at a later stage. Some critics believe that this dramaturgical technique creates certain gaps of logic in some of the character’s motivation, but I strongly disagree with such a proposition, because these details actually have no meaning. They would neither be directly related to the plot development, as in the case it is more than obvious that it is the consequences for Russell Baze’s life, not the reasons, that are far more important, nor would they significantly add to the personality of the main character. And you should also take into consideration that even in the relatively scarce prison scenes, Cooper continues to develop Russell Baze’s character intelligently enough to not need to risk diluting his film with shots that would just be an unnecessary load. Take for instance the scene in the prison when Rodney tells his brother the news of their father’s death – even in this moment of immense grief, the physically and psychologically crushed Russ instinctively finds the strength to provide encouragement and consolation to his younger brother, supposedly hardened in several military missions. This is one of the moments where once again we glimpse the natural hierarchy in their relations and we can see that whatever a person has gone through, whatever life experience they have accumulated through the years, this alone has no meaning if they do not possess the ability to correctly read the lessons of life.
After Russell is released from prison, the film once again returns to its linear pace, but the question of the time the older brother spends in isolation remains open. Cooper intentionally avoids directly answering this question, because, as I mentioned earlier, he accepts that this detail is inessential to the story development, yet he still slips in some helpful, unobtrusive markers for the more observant, which put a kind of a frame around the timespan in question. The popular pre-election speech of an American senator aired in John Petty’s bar (before the road accident) and the date of the inspection stickers on Russell’s truck after his release show that the period during which the older Baze brother is serving his sentence amounts to approximately five years.
Now, imagine just a single day where you are able to be alone with yourself. Just 24 hours where you can distance yourself from all kinds of external stimuli, so that you can only hear the whisper of your thoughts and the quiet rhythm of your heart. I am convinced that this day will be absolutely enough for you to analyze your life in detail, realize and suffer through your mistakes again, imagine your future and set your goals anew. And now put yourself in forced isolation, imagine nearly two thousand such days and load them with a terrible amount of pain and guilt. Isn’t this the ultimate test of the spirit, the will, the psyche? Because that’s exactly what Russell Baze’s world is for a terribly long period of time.
There is a scene in Out of the Furnace that acts as a cornerstone for Russell Baze’s whole life story. Everything we have seen thus far from Scott Cooper’s tale leads to it and any development from this point on follows from its unbelievably strong emotional charge. The energy entwined in it is so powerful, so searing that in and of itself this breathtaking composition of shots seems to create its own reality. A scene that could easily function on its own outside the context of the story it serves, without losing even a small part of the emotion injected in it.
Most of you have probably guessed by now that I’m referring to the bridge scene between Russ and Lena and before I concentrate on a more in-depth commentary of these staggering three minutes, I would like to once again go off-script, so that we can interpret the scene together through the prism of ideas I’m so insistently trying to impose throughout this text.
According to some theoreticians, emotions are a direct result of a whole sequence of interconnected physiological processes generated in the organism. This naïve view gives emotions the role of a product and not a catalyst, which I personally believe is quite ridiculous, because it is never really explained what in turn unleashes the chain reaction, if it is in fact the prime cause. But this is an entirely different topic which seems to forcefully strive to rationalize a very abstract matter and I would utterly water down this text if I keep examining it in deeper detail. That’s why I would dare simplify things a bit. Imagine that emotion is energy (which it undoubtedly is). Energy has the peculiar ability to generate itself, accumulate and release, but not disappear. It is either transferred or just transformed from one type of energy into another.
This is exactly what is happening in this scene – an unimaginable amount of long suppressed energy is detonated within just a few brief moments. The dam breaks and waves of white-hot emotions spring forth in powerful bursts, enveloping the two human beings in an almost palpable cocoon of time and space, unaffected by outside influence. Russell has transformed all of his accumulated suffering into yearning and HOPE, reliving the upcoming moments in his thoughts again and again. He has left behind an eternity of torment, self-flagellation and asking countless unanswered questions, fully aware that his life hinges on the next few minutes, because this is his one chance to get back on the track that fate so mercilessly threw him off of. For years, time has unsuccessfully tried to put layers of connective tissue on the dangerously taut raw nerve and for years a powerful stream of emotion has been keeping the wound open, READY to resonate at each unprovoked memory or a burst of nostalgia. For years, Lena has coexisted with her GUILT. Time has taught her to control and suppress its influence. She’s set to face the accusations of her beloved, the reproach in his eyes and the anger in his words. She has relived it thousands of times from the moment she let another person into her life and she knows that this is the moment she has to pay the price for her weakness. A moment she would never be completely ready and a price which she would never be strong enough to pay.
How is it possible that two souls that belong to one another can be so cruel to themselves? What twisted force of nature stimulates and justifies this conscious and excruciating building of walls, when all possible instincts are screaming for them to be torn down? This is a whole life, seemingly marked to remain just a stroke on an empty canvas, thrown to the winds. All these unlived moments together, unspoken kind words, unshared smiles and all those dreams that are never coming true. A wide palette of colorful emotions that will never be experienced and dark ones that will stay with them all through their lives.
The tragedy of Russell and Lena, however, does not lie in the reasons for their final separation, nor in their attempts to keep for themselves the dear memories, sinking into the darkness of oblivion, but in the GUILT over mistakes made and mostly in the doubt around the choice that has materialized in consequence. Because, if you think about it, each of us is preordained to fight a battle with their personal demons and sooner or later each of us has to make their difficult and fateful choice, becoming an inevitable victim of their own system of values and principles. That’s why due to the palpable inner discomfort that almost always accompanies the independent decision making, we are often inclined to let someone predetermine the choices for us. And that is precisely the reason for Lena to express the hesitation that is eating her with the question that casts doubt on the sweetness of her most precious dream coming true. The sob, wrested out with pain, seems to scream: “Tell me what to do, is this really the way, am I doing the right thing?” Questions that no one, not even time, can answer, because this is exactly the price of choice. This is the price of mistakes and weakness.
It is difficult to describe this scene, so infused with feeling. Maybe some true wordsmith could find the much more accurate means of expression to reproduce the whole palette of emotional nuances that rule these shots, because with absolutely no uneasiness I admit this is a task far beyond my abilities. This is also a scene that requires the full acting potential and concentration of the two participants and I don’t think I’m off the mark here, by saying that in this particular scene, Christian Bale and Zoe Saldana deliver one of the most powerful performances in their respective careers. Because this is not about suffering through some extreme physical transformation or creating a character of an atypical behavior, this is about the full merge and psychological dissection of characters every one of us can relate to, in stations that albeit extreme, are painfully familiar to all of us. Bale is undoubtedly given the harder task of visualizing the transformation of one emotion into another, because just notice how many times and in what timespan is this emotional (de)gradation realized. The state of blind HOPE at the moment of the half-whispered revelation “God, I’ve missed you so much!”, thrown out as a painful cry from the lips of an honorable man who has concentrated years of suffering in this heavy sigh, seeped with feeling. The crushing DISAPPOINTMENT following Lena’s admission and the faint glimpse of the ANGER, threateningly gathering strength, expeditiously drowned in the SORROW that fills the heart. The Fate once again plays its infinitely sad melody.
The scene ends with the camera gradually moving away from Russell, alone and anguished, leaning heavily on the railings of the old bridge, corroded with time. I don’t think there exists a better visualization of the irretrievably lost horizon. I also don’t think there exists a better picture of the dead end, desperation and darkness.
I mentioned earlier that some critics partially defend their low score for Out of the Furnace with arguments around Lena’s motivation which they believe to be insufficiently developed. The argument offered gravitates around the idea that given the crucial importance of Zoe Saldana’s character in the story, the time Cooper has provided for developing her character is negligibly little, which in turn creates preconditions for generating logical (according to some) questions, related to her motivation. And indeed, why, if there existed (and still exists) such powerful love between Lena and Russell, she chooses to not visit him even once in prison and allows herself to enter a long-term relationship with another man in his absence? What really motivates a behavior that is so irrational at first glance?
I believe this is one of those details of the story that Cooper neglects absolutely intentionally, because as I mentioned earlier, they do not add to the development of the story in any way, nor do they aid in filling out Russell’s character. What would the story gain if the director had gone into lengthy elucidations of Lena’s motives and had provided a view of her evolving relationship with Chief Barnes? Especially given the fact that it is practically impossible to develop this arc without it severely damaging the rhythm and coherence of the tale. It’s a rhetorical question, of course, that’s why Cooper focuses instead on the consequences of Lena’s actions and the damages that cause, giving the viewer the chance to find the logic on their own. And because I don’t think I could exhaust this topic fully, allow me to try and paint the situation in the following paragraphs through Lena’s hypothetical viewpoint, as interpreted by me:
A moment of carelessness and Russell Baze becomes the reason for the road accident that caused the death of two people – a mother and a child. After the almost forced toast with John Petty earlier that evening, Russell’s blood is, completely unsurprisingly, infused with alcohol, which automatically dooms him to spend the next years in forced isolation. In the first days, weeks, even months, apart from the inevitable shock from the sudden stroke of fate, the most normal thing in the world is for Lena to impulsively feel the seeds of strong anger towards Russell, who is chiefly to blame (according to her point of view) about their failed dreams for a life together. We also shouldn’t overlook the fact that she is a child educator, and the death of a child, no matter if it is caused as a result of an unfortunate turn of events, could further fuel her negativism. This is one of the possible reasons for Lena to not wish to visit Russell in prison, but not, I think, the main one, as the anger sooner or later dies down, replaced by emotions and needs of an entirely different nature and character. The main reason for Lena to partially distance herself, because nowhere in the film is it mentioned that she has given up visiting him altogether, is neither her hypothetical anger, nor some detachment or indifference on her part, but the exact opposite – her overwhelming love. Psychologically devastated, Lena is simply in no condition to suffer through the helpless state of the man she always thought of as her support and partner in life.
Somewhere around this moment, the character of Chief Barnes, portrayed by Forest Whitaker, starts coming into Lena’s life. In his capacity as a law enforcer in the region, the chief was most likely directly involved in the investigation of the fatal incident from the very beginning, and from that point his future relationship with Lena started to develop. It is entirely natural that the compassion and care the chief has expressed towards the desolate young woman would fill the niche left by Russell, so at some point in time, what has started as an innocent friendship, starts growing into something more. And it is in this moment that Lena’s motives for not visiting Russell in prison begin to change, as her persistent feeling of GUILT comes to the forefront. I think this is exactly the emotion that from this point onward will be accompanying Lena throughout her entire life and will fully predetermine her behavior towards both Russell and herself. Many would ask themselves the question why, if her love was so strong, Lena never managed to overcome her momentary weakness and didn’t foresee the development of her relationship with Chief Barnes? The answer to this question has countless variations, because we all know that some events just happen by themselves and the more difficult decisions are left to age in time, the more our chance to make any kind of choice is being taken away. The main thing here is that Lena shows all signs of a proper and honorable person and once she has allowed herself the weakness to bend under the load of her own tragedy, she would find it difficult to abandon her personal responsibility and the consequences that follow her decision.
I return, however, to Russell Baze’s character and the scene on the bridge, because as we already determined, it is he who is the center of the story and I still haven’t interpreted why his dialogue with Lena is the circumstance that will very heavily predetermine the flow of events from here on out and will pave the way for Russell’s revenge.
Earlier we followed the role of ANGER as an imperative for change and now I would like to stress one of its manifestations that is relatively rare, often irrational, but when it works – incredibly underestimated: the role of this emotion as a defense mechanism. In the scene on the bridge, after Lena’s admission that she is pregnant, one moment stood out where Russell was a hair’s width away from igniting his anger and if he had allowed the emotion to overpower him, I don’t think that anyone would have any sort of grounds to accuse him of being impulsive or momentary weak. The vast majority of us would react in the absolute same way, because that is exactly where the protective function of anger lies – in transforming the destructive and passive character of melancholy into a constrictive impulse for action. We are all aware that anger is one of the most devastating human emotions and in certain cases this feeling is so powerful that it can easily drown out all other emotional states that are bursting for a release. This is a type of healing process, an evolutionary mechanism perfected through the centuries with a singular cherished purpose – to buy time for sorrow and pain to disperse and prevent the freefall of the mind into the dark world of despair, guilt and self-pity.
In the scene on the bridge, however, Russell manages to resist the temptation to egoistically preserve himself. His inborn altruism, his sense of responsibility and most of all, his love for Lena prevent him from using his failed hopes and disappointment to fuel his fury. In that moment Russell’s anger is not just being suppressed, it is being aggressively choked, crushed and buried somewhere deep within the mind, patiently awaiting the spark that will blow the dam open, channel the destructive potential of the emotion into a yearning for revenge and will complete the metamorphosis of an honorable man, standing by his principles, into a murder-prone renegade.
And here, I believe, the logical hypothetical question arises – would Russell be motivated enough to undertake his revenge, if those several minutes on the bridge hadn’t gone so horribly for him? Would he be willing to risk himself and his future if this time fate had decided to compensate him for his own suffering and had given him even a vague, illusionary chance to get his beloved back? Personally, I believe that the answer to this question is a negative and that is precisely the fundamental meaning in this scene, because it acts not just as an emotional core of the movie, but as the kind of a crossroads in Russell Baze’s life, the moment that, as I said earlier, predetermines all his decisions from this point on. Because, I imagine you’d agree, what else is a man to do, after losing absolutely everything significant in his life, except to follow his instincts and channel all the accumulated bitterness into a specific goal (in this case – revenge).
Here I’d like to draw special attention to how spontaneously and elegantly the touching scene on the bridge is upgraded by the following no-less impactful image of Russell, coming back to the scene of the crash. Although the two scenes depict two different and not necessarily consecutive timespans, they interact with one another in an amazing way. Cooper intentionally uses the momentum of the created mood to strengthen the emotional effect and underscore the inseparability of the two scenes and it is no accident that he has united them with one of Dickon Hinchliffe’s most heartfelt musical themes. And the image of Russell, kneeling at the place of death, however heartbreaking it is, is not meant to deliver emotional impact (although it does so beautifully), as much as it is adding the latest precise stroke to his personality and motivation, as this is precisely the scene where one can recognize GUILT as a dominating factor in Russell’s attitude towards the incident that upturned his life. The guilt crystalizes at one other point, in Chief Barnes’ line to Russell that is almost like a pointed gun, in the scene that directly confronts the two men: “I’m not the one who was out drinking and driving. Got locked up and had to leave his woman alone ‘cause of something I did, a mistake I made.” The line sounds like an attempt on the chief’s side to transfer responsibility, but one has to admit, it does throw a fistful of salt straight into the open wound.
And here, I think, it is time to ask one of the main questions the film puts forward – why does a man with Russell’s values unflinchingly swallows a method so morally reproachable in this day and age as revenge? What force of nature motivates the choice and trajectory of these several millimeters of the trigger’s path that make the difference between life and death and what exactly is the goal of this fateful decision? All questions of a fundamental importance, and not just in the context of Russell Baze’s personal story, but also in the context of the entire history of humankind, filled with its deep controversies.
However, let us first look at the function of revenge, because together with love this derivative of anger is probably one of the most ancient, all-encompassing themes in the history of humankind and this, of course, is no accident. Just think about it – not only do almost all of the world’s religions cover the emblematic lex talionis (“eye for an eye, blood for blood”) as one of the main starting points in their canons, but the societies themselves, through the stages of their development, are persistently institutionalizing (and, to a certain degree, civilizing) revenge through the introduction of the written laws and the bodies responsible for their implementation. And since human behavioral models remain almost unchanged through the thousands of years of evolutionary development, to this day revenge keeps being one of the most universal encouraging motives and its influence, directly or indirectly, doesn’t stop shining through almost every aspect of our life. And therein lies the paradox – that this primitive, destructive and violence-based manifestation of anger acts as a preventive mechanism against violence itself, which in turn predetermines its existence from a purely evolutionary standpoint.
Thus arises the moral conundrum, because like all else, revenge has always been a matter of choice whose foundations lie on our subjective understanding of ethics and morality. In most cases moral judgement is based not so much on rational arguments but on the emotional moral intuition, therefore the choice between the frantic desire to bring justice and the possibility of a magnanimous forgiveness is definitely not an easy one, bearing in mind the complexity of predicting consequences, both positive and negative. On the one hand, revenge is not always necessary, but on the other there are many situations when the toxic hatred, the burning feeling of anger and the sense of engendered injustice definitively tip the scales, fueling the powerful yearning for vengeance with an indescribable flow of emotion. Because, you will agree, no one, absolutely no one is obliged to forgive the acts of aggression against them or their loved ones. Because those that preach such a philosophy simply haven’t lived with the feeling of rage and impotence when one who has lost faith in his peers no longer sees even himself as a personality. When pain eats through the joy of life and makes one a hostage of one’s own eroded principles.
I’m coming back to the scene at the police station I mentioned previously, because in it we see for the first time not just how the idea of revenge materializes in Russell Baze, but we bear witness to his first reaction ever. Up until this point, Russell’s dominant feeling of guilt caused by him being at the base of a misfortunate series of events, predetermines and to a degree justifies his passive attitude towards the consequences of the tragic incident. The murder of John petty and the supposed (at that point in time) death of Rodney, however, introduce a brand new motive that literally pulls Russell out of the lethargy. Once again anger is used in its capacity as a catalyst for action, but in the specific case the charge is now incomparably more powerful than everything we have seen and felt up until this moment. In fact, this is the most powerful possible impulse for reaction, as the inviolability and prosperity of people in our immediate surrounding is one of the main (and actually most egoistical) interests known to man. And indeed, in the human genetic code there is the aptitude to suffer through inconceivable amounts of personal suffering, yet be infinitely intolerant of any kind of violence against their loved ones. That’s why the aggression against his brother awakes in Russell that primitive and bloodthirsty predatory instinct that lies dormant in all of us and that we all know is particularly destructive, when a man has virtually nothing to lose.
Do you remember that magnificent final scene in Unforgiven where William Munny, mad with the thirst for revenge, sets foot the Big Whiskey pub to let lose his bloodthirsty drive for vengeance? This emblematic moment of the film, marking the end of the reverse transformation of the tired and thoroughly trashed by life old man into the legendary demonic killer that once inspired fear throughout the endless steppes of the Wild West. I wouldn’t dare make a direct comparison between Unforgiven and Out of the Furnace, but for some reason the scene where Russell is hunting for DeGroat in his own drug den has always reminded me of this clip of Clint Eastwood’s monumental masterpiece. There is something in the fierce predatory quality of William Munny, and especially in the dark decisiveness, emanating from his character, that automatically makes me associate the character with that of Russell Baze. The same recklessness, typical of those irretrievably stuck in fury’s trap, that in most cases has no other counteraction that retreat. And here we see a very interesting phenomenon – every reasonable person would call Russell’s impulsive actions immediately after his conversation with Chief Barnes a big mistake, while the paradox lies in that when placed in a similar situation, very few people wouldn’t do the same. For better or for worse, this is the primal reaction, inherent in all of us. We should however, ask the question to what extent is this reaction as illogical as we would think at first glance, in the case of Russell Baze, because we shouldn’t forget that the moment Russell passes by Harlan DeGroat in his own abode, Rodney Baze still hasn’t been declared dead. And if Russell and his uncle bursting into Harland DeGroat’s house is more of a daring and desperate attempt by two people to find information about their loved one and hopefully save him from the clutches of death, the revenge planned later doesn’t have any of that stark furious nature any more. It is a cold-blooded and thoroughly thought out laying of a trap by a superior predator, moved by the most powerful possible motivation who uses the greed, egocentrism and very limited spectrum of alarm and fear in his prey to eliminate one of its main advantages – fighting for its life on its own territory.
There is some very fierce symbolism in the way death befalls Harlan DeGroat, because you will agree that for Russell it’s not enough to simply kill the target of his revenge. DeGroat’s death could be a fact immediately after he ran from John Petty’s bar, and it could be a fact after the first shot directed into DeGroat’s body, but in all those moments Russell is consciously holding back the execution, postponing it, because in his world that would be too merciful of an exit for the man who took his brother’s life and who to some degree embodies the whole brutal amalgamation of losses that have marked his life to this point. In Russell’s world, vengeance goes hand in hand with redemption. DeGroat’s death wouldn’t have the same value if it is not realized, because only the realization of its inevitability can highlight the internal catharsis in the attitude towards life.
The abandoned steel mill, filled with childhood memories, turns into an arena of the coveted death ritual. Russell knows every inch of this cold steel incubator. This is his home, his fortress. He can still hear the echoing footsteps on the hanging metal walkways, the bubbling children’s laughter piercing the silence, he can still feel the rust on his hand and the stare of the sparkling little eyes, mischievously peeking out from under the shadows. A fantastic mirage of a long-lost reality, irretrievably swallowed by time, taking with it all the joyful childish dreams, reveries and naïve hopes. Somewhat imperceptibly Russell turns from a victim of fate into its instrument, simultaneously a witness and an executor. His eyes carefully follow, observe and soak in the reactions of his adversary. He delivers one calculated blow after another, seeking silent gratification in the pain on his victim’s face, in each drop of blood that hits the slag and each groan drawn from his lips. Every shot in DeGroat’s body releases pieces of the powerfully compressed charge of emotions in the mind of his executioner. Anger, pain, hatred, guilt… love. Wave after wave.
The condemned is taking his final steps. He doesn’t beg for forgiveness. Weakness is not an option, it never was. He has survived up to this point by denying it. Somewhere deep in his corrupted mind the ghost of the man he could have been is perfectly aware of the value of his existence. That is why weakness is not an option. And it never was. He feels how every tortured step saps his strength and takes him closer and closer to death. His pierced liver fills his mouth with blood. He sways and digs his face into the ground. His heavy eyes find the man, observing him just an arm’s length away. In his eyes he finds no more hatred, no more contempt, no more anger. Only the cold, expressionless emptiness. And a sentence: “I’m Rodney Baze’s brother.” It takes a few seconds for the mind to overcome the pain and restore some of the memories locked within it. The name appears with a face and for Harlan DeGroat there’s nothing left but to smile at the irony of his own fate: “…You hear those birds?”
This is the moment of redemption Russell is aiming for and expecting. The end of the forceful transformation he caused, where at the threshold of his own demise, a murderer who has embraced death as a virtue will find the true value of life in the world surrounding him. Russell’s final shot tears through the silence of the valley bating its breath and death finally closes the ritual. A heavy, constrained sigh announces the release of the final remnants of emotion and the emptiness silently setting in. The man from whom fate has taken absolutely everything to drive him to become her instrument, has fulfilled his purpose and accomplished its mission.
Life really has a strange sense of humor, cynical in most cases…
PART THREE. EPILOGUE.
I will end with something that even though closely related with the story around making the film, I intentionally chose to omit in my story earlier. It is about something Eddie Vedder said to Scott Cooper during their fateful meeting in Seattle, which had nested itself in my mind before I even started writing this text and throughout the long process of writing, I constantly called upon it for help in the moments when my motivation fell beneath the critical minimum:
“If you don’t write all of that, sooner or later it will eat you alive.”
And the truth is there was a real danger of me being eaten alive, because it really took me a terribly long time to write this text. In fact, this even turned into a kind of a joke, because from the moment I gathered the courage and sat down to think about the introduction, a friend of mine finished and published two books, and I know that for a while he’s been hallway to finishing the third. In any case, I had decided to demonstrate proverbial stubbornness and not put any sort of limits for myself and see what would happen. The lack of a deadline gave me the chance to be exceptionally unsparing both in terms of volume (which is more than obvious) and interpreting the themes involved in the film, but the most valuable thing was that throughout that period I myself managed to significantly expand my own view of life, and I was also lucky enough to find people who just like me had managed to take this film very personally and the discussions with them helped me immensely to order and systematize the chaos in my head. In a certain sense I could even say this text is more a fruit of collective efforts than an individual performance and I sincerely hope it will feel as such.
Because after all, Out of the Furnace is not a film just for me, you or someone on the sidelines. Neither is it a film about anger, loss and vengeance. It is a film about maturity. About one’s ability to overcome one’s own ego, thanks to whose catharsis the fundamental truth can be discovered that manliness is not proven in the search of heroic challenges, but in daily routine. A film about honor, a quality that very few people manage to live with and even fewer to die with.
PS: Special tanks to artist Todor Hristov, who disregarded his personal obligations with readiness and without any hesitation in order to paint all these wonderful illustrations that adorn the text!