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Out of the Furnace (2013)

Out of the Furnace #1

by Steve Habrat

Over the past few years, it seems that it has become routine for Hollywood to release one or two rundown drama-thrillers a year that feature blue collar characters having it out with one another in a gasping American neighborhood on the verge of total collapse. We’ve seen it in films like Winter’s Bone, The Fighter, The Beasts of Southern Wild, and Killing Them Softly, all of which relished immersing audiences in family squabbling, filth, decay, and boarded up structures. This year we have director Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, another downbeat family-drama/revenge-thriller set against a dying industrial town in Pennsylvania. While Out of the Furnace may not necessarily win any points for originality (this is definitely a seen-it-all-before exercise), Cooper’s Rust Belt tale of revenge is comprised of heart pounding backwoods atmosphere, bare-knuckle brutality, and gripping melodrama guaranteed to make that hour and fifty minute runtime fly by in a flash. It also features enough A-list talent to fuel a dozen Oscar bait movies, with stars Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard all bringing the true grit required to allow a film like this to really take shape.

Out of the Furnace introduces us to Russell Baze (played by Christian Bale), a steel mill worker who slaves away taking double shifts to help out his brother, Rodney (played by Casey Affleck), a war veteran struggling to adapt to normal life after several tours of duty in Iraq. Despite some differences, Russell and Rodney still band together to look after their terminally ill father, who seems to be getting worse by the day. One evening, Russell is driving home from a local bar when he strikes a car and kills the occupants inside. Russell is sent away to prison for some time, but when he emerges, he realizes that his life hasn’t gotten any easier. As he tries to come to terms with the passing of his father and his break-up with his beautiful girlfriend, Lena (played by Zoe Saldana), Russell learns that Rodney has become involved with bare-knuckle boxing. Concerned for his safety, Russell attempts to persuade Rodney to leave bare-knuckle boxing behind and come work with him at the steel mill. Refusing to listen to his brother, Rodney demands that local gangster John Petty (played by Willem Dafoe) get him fights that are run by Harlan DeGroat (played by Woody Harrelson), an extremely dangerous backwoods thug who has a grudge against Petty. After Rodney mysteriously disappears at the hands of DeGroat, Russell takes the law into his own hands and sets out to find his brother before it’s too late.

While there are several elements borrowed from other films and there is a slight predictability to it, Out of the Furnace takes great care in really making both its story and its characters seem as genuine as possible. Russell struggles to find the motivation to pull himself from the comfort of Lena’s arms to work a double at the sweaty steel mill. With circles under his eyes and his dreams smothered under protective gear, he keeps a dignified poise as he tries desperately to keep his brother on the right track. This proves challenging when Rodney retaliates with the horrors he saw in Iraq (some of the stories he shares are deeply disturbing), which really allow us a clear understanding as to why it is so difficult for him to find his place in normal society. Russell’s composure remains in tact when he is involved in that gruesome car accident, which places him behind bars and at the mercy of vicious inmates for some time. When he finally gets out, things have gone from bad to worse, as he grapples with the loss of his father, his break up, and the horrors of that terrible accident. Despite his weary exasperation, when he finally has to confront the demons that claim his brother, there are no exaggerations in the actions taken. The frustration with local authorities and his determination to not loose his brother open a door for careful plotting that leads up to a low-key final showdown with the devil himself that is shockingly convincing.

Out of the Furnace #2

While Bale makes Russell’s soft-spoken composure, self-assurance, and deteriorating compliance in the face of tragedy and failure electrifying cinema, it is Harrelson’s sadistic Harlan DeGroat that is ultimately in charge of Out of the Furnace. With a crack-rock smile and zero patience, DeGroat relishes his rotten existence, proudly declaring that he “has a problem with everybody.” He pyshically and psychologically bullies anyone and everyone for the smallest things, proudly beating up his girlfriend at a drive-in and then viciously attacking a man who tries to intervene. It’s an unforgettably evil performance from Harrelson, who completely fills out DeGroat’s filthy-dirty skin. Affleck is perfectly suited for Rodney, a haunted soldier who just can’t seem to get his life together. He comes home with his face pounded into oblivion and sips liquor to make the pain go away. He’s on a crash course, and his fate is tragically foreseeable. Dafoe is fantastic as John Petty, a small time thug in over his head with the wrong people. He’s far from a hard-ass gangster, and when the people he has wronged come calling, the quiver in his voice will have your stomach in a knot. Saldana is given a small but pivotal role as Lena, Russell’s one and only escape from his daily grind. Forest Whitaker is present as Chief Wesley Barnes, a gravel-voiced cop who stole Lena away from Russell. His strained relationship with Russell is put to the test when he attempts to get to the bottom of Rodney’s disappearance. Sam Shepard also stops by as Gerald Baze, Russell and Rodney’s uncle who joins Russell in his quest to track down his brother.

Considering that Out of the Furnace draws from other intense works of cinema, the film dishes out plenty of scenes drenched in blood and violence. The bare-knuckle boxing scenes are difficult to watch, as each punch thrown isn’t accompanied with an over-the-top sound effect to embellish the force of the blow. The beatings are savage and the violence is shown in up-close-and-personal detail, especially one character taking a bullet to the head. We also can’t forget Rodney’s war stories, which will certainly repulse and remind us all of the horrors of war. Equally disturbing is a trip to a rundown crack house hidden in the dense hills. We glimpse junkies sprawled across ripped sofas, sucking on crack pipes and shooting heroine in between their toes. Overall, while the lack of originality will hold the film back this awards season, Out of the Furnace is still a riveting, emotional, and uncompromising backwoods drama/thriller. It makes great use of its backdrop, it’s appropriately moody, and it’s comprised of actors who take familiar characters and really give them distinctive life. It’s capped off with an abrupt finale that is welcomingly blunt and haunting.

Grade: A-

The Butler (2013)

The Butler #2

by Steve Habrat

It isn’t uncommon for one or two Oscar hopefuls to sneak into movie theaters near the end of the summer, when the aliens have been battled back into space and the superheroes have hung up their capes until next May. It really is a nice change of pace considering that blockbuster fatigue does begin set in by early August. Recently, hype has been slowly building around Woody Allen’s new film Blue Jasmine, but for weeks now there has been plenty of talk about director Lee Daniels’ star-studded new picture The Butler, a film that is bound and determined to get some sort of recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Butler is certainly an absorbing drama that digs deeply into a wound on American history, a wound that still hasn’t quite healed up. Based upon the life of Eugene Allen, Daniels’ latest effort is bursting at the seams with performances from a roster of Hollywood who’s who, and one that is carried off into the clouds by the always-fantastic Forest Whitaker, who should probably start ordering a tux right now for Hollywood’s big night. While there is plenty of family melodrama and quiet personal anguish that pierces the heart, Daniels may have missed a shot at the Best Picture and Best Director category due to a few bungled sequences that resemble something you might see on a made-for-TV movie, not something you’d see in an Oscar hopeful.

The Butler begins in 1926, with a young Cecil Gaines witnessing his father (played by David Banner) being gunned down after speaking up about the harassment that his wife (played by Mariah Carey) has been enduring at the hands of the vile cotton plantation owner. The young Cecil, who has been learning how to work the cotton fields, is soon pulled from under the hot Georgia sun brought into the plantation household to learn how to act as a house servant. A few years later, Cecil (played by Forest Whitaker) leaves the plantation and ends up landing a job as a butler at the Hotel Excelsior in Washington D.C. After charming a handful of Washington bigwigs, Cecil is contacted by the White House about a job as a butler for the Eisenhower administration. Cecil accepts and quickly becomes a favorite among the White House staff as he silently observers multiple presidents—Dwight D. Eisenhower (played by Robin Williams), John F. Kennedy (played by James Mardsen), Lyndon B. Johnson (played by Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon (played by John Cusask), and Ronald Reagan (played by Alan Rickman)—and the difficult decisions they are tasked with making. Meanwhile, Cecil’s home life begins to suffer as his wife, Gloria (played by Oprah Winfrey), develops a drinking problem and falls into the arms of another man (played by Terrence Howard), his oldest son, Louis (played by David Oyelowo), gets swept up by the Civil Rights Movement, and his youngest son, Charlie (played by Elijah Kelley), gets shipped off to Vietnam.

With so much history to cover, you fear that The Butler’s two hour and ten minute run time may not be quite enough to do it all justice, but Daniels handles a majority of it with ease. Sadly, there are a few years that are reduced to a quick-cut montage of fuzzy stock footage. Some of the more violent stretches are sanitized for a PG-13 audience but there are still a handful of images that manage to haunt (a pair of black men hanging battered and bloodied are a grim warning and the riots in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination are appropriately angry and raw). One of the most powerful stretches of The Butler is a sequence that finds Cecil preparing a ritzy White House dinner while his son and a handful of his friends march proudly into a diner and request service in the non-colored section. The sequence is superbly edited together and it effectively builds tension in the way it closes itself around the viewer, backing us into a corner as white-hot hate crashes all around. This particular sequence doesn’t mince words but there are a number of scenes that seem defanged. One of the softer moments comes when Cecil’s son Louis is bopping along happily on a bus with his Freedom Rider friends when their bus is suddenly cornered by an enraged group of KKK members. Rather than allowing the action to play out at normal speed, Daniels makes the perplexing decision to bring the violent encounter to a slow-motion halt in an awkward attempt to really underline the fact that these hate-spewing monsters are the very definition of evil. This moment, which should have you holding your breath, comes off like something you’d see in a History Channel documentary rather than a Hollywood movie. I suspect that at normal speed, this scene would have had both black and white viewers covering their mouths in horror.

The Butler

Carefully worked into this historical tour is a melodramatic portrait of a family that is on the verge of coming apart. Cecil is forced to quietly keep his composure as he brings tea right into the Oval Office and face individuals who are fully capable of doing something about the racial tensions ripping America to shreds. Watching Whitaker tackle this role is never short of amazing and the way he allows us to glimpse his heavy heart through his sad eyes is really something special. He’s a frustrated father, an absent husband, and warm face that greets school children with a plate of cookies as they arrive at the White House for a field trip tour. Winfrey, meanwhile, is a huge surprise as Cecil’s bored housewife, who turns to the bottle and another man to fill the empty gap in her life. Winfrey is absolutely on fire in a sequence in which she berates a fatigued Cecil as he tries to get some sleep. Then there is Oyelowo’s Louis, Cecil’s pissed off son who is sickened by the way his people are being treated. He starts out with small protests that earn him a night or two in jail (as well as a pot of hot coffee thrown in his face) only to graduate into the Black Panthers with a grimacing galpal that tells the conflicted young man that she is willing to kill for her people, a statement that forces Louis to look inward and find an alternative way to help African Americans earn equal rights. He’s equally as strong as Whitaker every step of the way.

As far as the rest of the all-star cast goes, they’re somewhat of a mixed bag. Williams is as good as ever in his few scenes as Eisenhower, Mardsen is grossly miscast as the charismatic Kennedy, Schreiber is a ball of energy as Johnson, Cusack is slouched defeat as Nixon, and Rickman is a showy and unbending Reagan. Jane Fonda turns up in a brief appearance as Nancy Reagan, who invites the popular Cecil to a White House dinner that he’d normally be serving. Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz offer up strong supporting roles as two other butlers at the White House who become chummy with lovable old Cecil. David Banner’s small but affectionate role as Cecil’s father is impressive and Carey is completely wasted (and barely recognizable) as Cecil’s abused mother. Nelsan Ellis appears in a small role as Martin Luther King Jr., but his presence doesn’t seem to pack the wise wisdom that it so desperately wants. Daniels should have left him to the stock footage that he liberally uses as the film’s guiding track. Overall, The Butler is certainly a handsome film (don’t forget to take in the meticulous sets and period clothing) and one that sets out to encourage every single viewer—whether they are white, black, young, or old—to reflect on the topic of race in America. It certainly does spark a bit of reflection on the issue, but the film is just a bit too innocuous to really shake things up like it wants. However, The Butler is still an entertaining film that features a powerhouse performance from Whitaker.

Grade: B+