Can Movie Stars Play Authentic Blue-Collar Characters?

12/06/2013 10:21 AM |

out of the furnace movie christian bale casey affleck

Out of the Furnace: It might occur to our more jaded moviegoers, during Out of the Furnace, that the townie scrappers played by Casey Affleck in Good Will Hunting and Christian Bale in The Fighter have switched up their accents and relocated to industrial Pennsylvania, eager to try their hand at living at dead-ends in an entirely different zip code. This may explain the proliferation of low-living crime pictures, and the gaps that sometimes form between the onscreen world and the real version of the same: where actors see an opportunity to pay authentic tribute to blue-collar problems, some attentive viewers may see, well, actors, playing hardscrabble.

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To be fair, those actors are terrific: Bale, switching from the fuck-up brother to the responsible one, remains a reliable chameleon with a preternatural sense of how to command attention through simple movement and gesture. He has a particularly raw scene opposite Zoe Saldana after he’s been released from prison, with both of them just barely keeping a hold on their crushing sadness over where their lives have taken them. Affleck is equally convincing and magnetic as Bale’s younger brother, who kills time between Iraq tours with bare-knuckle boxing, trying to repay the more avuncular sleazebag (Willem Dafoe) who in turn owes a more dangerous out-of-town sleazebag (Woody Harrelson), a New Jersey hillbilly king.

Harrelson is introduced memorably but sort of confusingly in a pre-credits sequence establishing his evil bona fides—like he’s the bad guy in a Bond or superhero movie, basically. Indeed, large chunks of Out of the Furnace resemble a gritted-up action movie narrative, with Bale as the good man in bad circumstances. Cowriter and director Scott Cooper often illustrates these circumstances economically—in the opening 30 or 40 minutes, his cause-and-effect dominos never seem too obviously placed—but as Harrelson heads into greater conflict with Bale and Affleck, some of the characters’ motivations turn murky and underdeveloped, exposing the movie’s shopworn qualities. Sometimes the movie becomes self-aware (“Am I supposed to be afraid of him because he sucks on a lollipop?” Affleck asks, pointing out Harrelson’s villainous affectation of choice); sometimes Cooper wrings tension from beautifully shot bursts of action; and often, the story gets caught somewhere between heartfelt pulp and kitchen-sink drama. And anyone who found the 2008-election backdrop of last year’s Killing Them Softly too unsubtle should marvel at the subtly but also lamely drawn shading the same time period brings to Out of the Furnace: gee, these people don’t have much hope for change!

The cast and Cooper’s eye keep the movie going just long enough for it to let you down in the end. The credits rolling to the tune of the same wailing Pearl Jam song that opened the movie, with zero other songs having played between the two, perfectly encapsulates what’s just unfolded onscreen: something emotional, respectable, and kind of one-note.