We’ve become inured to Christian Bale’s chameleonic take on acting. From drastic weight fluctuations to elaborate prosthetic comb-overs to his in/famous “Batman voice”, Bale is a guy who goes all out for the sake of a character. So I feel it is really saying something when I tell you that his performance as Russell Baze, a barely-hanging-on blue-collar worker from the steel belt, is easily one of the best of his career to date—arguably the best. There is no body change, no funny voice, no elaborate make-up. There is just Bale, preternaturally still, playing a guy made of hopelessness and broken dreams. Out of the Furnace itself is a solid, if predictable, revenge thriller, but Bale’s performance elevates it to something more lyrical and moving than that.
It helps that he is supported by a tremendous ensemble cast. Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker, Willem Defoe and Zoe Saldana are all great, with Affleck doing top-notch work as well. Furnace is a straightforward “life sucks, everything is hopeless” story centered on the Baze brothers, Russell and Rodney. Russ is the eldest, the responsible one who went to work at the steel mill like his dad, and who, at the beginning of the film, has his life reasonably well together. He’s taking care of his ailing dad, has a hot girlfriend at home (Saldana), and manages to keep his younger brother Rodney (Affleck) out of the worst of the trouble he brings down on himself in between tours in Iraq. But, as it usually goes, nice-guy Russell is the one who ends up in trouble, spending several years in jail for a DUI that resulted in death (even though, drinking aside, he was not at fault for the accident, which makes no sense, but whatever).
When he gets out, Rodney is finally through with the military, but he is clearly very fucked up by it and this is when Russell’s life spirals out of control. His dad is dead, his girl left him and is living with the police chief (Whitaker), and his brother vanishes after getting tangled up with “inbred mountain people” from New Jersey. Frustrated by the police’s bureaucracy—and possibly simply not wanting to rely on the man who “stole” his woman—Russell sets out to find and avenge his brother himself, setting up a cat-and-mouse scenario with the king of the inbred mountain people from New Jersey, Harlan (Harrelson).
The first half of Furnace is better and more compelling than the second; I would have been fine watching a movie about nothing more than Russell’s slow, inevitable slide into alcoholism as he struggles, and fails, to get ahead in life. But Harrelson is appropriately crazy as methhead Harlan, and Bale’s anger is so palpable yet seething that they carry the third act well enough. A lesser film would have had Bale spiraling out to match Harrelson’s crazy, but co-writer and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) resists the impulse and instead Bale slowly ratchets up Russell’s tension until there is no option but to release it via violence. The payoff is expected, but it’s satisfying anyway.
Out of the Furnance reminded me of the similarly-themed—but slightly better—A Single Shot. It was enjoyable and is, technically, a very well made movie, but I wonder if I hadn’t already seen A Single Shot if I might have liked Furnace a bit more. As it is, it felt like a retread, especially in the second half. Still, it’s totally watchable for the quality of Bale’s performance alone. American Hustle is sure to make more hay with critics and audiences, but Furnace is a good reminder that Bale really doesn’t need the Method madness in order to be an effective and compelling actor. It makes me want more such lo-fi performances from him.