Out of the Furnace – Scott Cooper (2013 USA) Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson
Viewed: 4 Feb 2014 ; Empire Cinema Newcastle upon Tyne; Ticket: £3.95
The opening sequence of Cooper's Out of the Furnace takes place in a drive in movie and introduces us to Woody Harrelson's character Harlan. Harlan gets annoyed at something or other (much of the detail in the film is elusively blurred). In response to his stirred up emotions, he rams a hot dog (“Goddam food makes me sick!”) down the throat of his lady consort, before beating to a pulp the gentleman who has protested too much. Woody's visceral reaction to whatever it was that upset his guts is so extreme its statement of excess becomes funny. It announces that 'Out of the Furnace' is going to lead us deep into the Hillbilly swamplands of parody; an opening preemptive clip that's bourn out in the movie's development
Cooper's film expresses America as a kind of inverted Disneyland.
And in this inverted Disneyland Woody Harrelson plays the part of a demonic Jiminy Cricket. The voice of the anti-conscience. Perhaps it is the creation of this dark Gothic archetype that explains the allure of the film to its audience. Harlan as the internalised voice that psychically legitimises the violence of the enraged Id. In infantalised cultures defined by an imperative for immediate gratification (and celebrated in the adverts that precede the movie) frustration is intolerable. The urgency of desire legitimises violence towards anything or anyone who is perceived as a barrier to desire. As Harlan says when he first meets and gives Rodney the look: “I got a problem with everyone”.
Harrelson's performance as an internalised psychopath comprises the film's core. Even when not up on screen like a shadow he's still present. Hard eyes (hardening of the muscles around the eyes is a trick Harrelson does very well) with lips and skin stretched face, he exudes an implacable necessary desire for doing only what he wants to do. Harlan's psychopathic counter conscience is offset with Russell and Rodney, the 'good' brothers, in a scripting device that splits off multiple personalities into discrete characters. The rustbelt Pennsylvanian setting of the film, photographed as a beautifully contrived dilapidation, is no more than a picaresque back drop against which to set the play out of the internalised personality forces at play in American culture: Destruction and Accommodations.
The limitation of Cooper's Out of the Furnace (Furnace - presumably a metaphor of America, or a play on Griffith's intertitle line in Intolerance: Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking?) is that from his narrative he is able to produce no more than a parody of the American Gothic genre.
The dialogue lurches from cliché to cliché comprising one liners we've heard before in some other movie. The scripting elements: the damaged war vet, the bare knuckle fighting, dying old father, all tread well worn narrative paths without deviating from the familiar. The scripting device that exploits the idea the Mountain Men reflects the ultimate parody of distancing. It spatially removes the schizoid psychopathic cultural forces, destruction and accommodation, from close-up (Zimmerman's slaying of Martin - Florida 2012: Dunn's slaying of Davis – Florida 2913. Both these killings appear to have been triggered by the infantile rage of the killer when their will was opposed by young blacks. Both killers took legal refuge in Florida's Stand Your Ground Statute.) to faraway. The Mountain Men become distant phantoms removed from day to day life. ( 'Some of them never bin down from those hills'). Out of the Furnaces's Mountain Men are caste as sort of Zombie creatures, removed from mainstream psychic conditions, who prosper in their own middens. Of course this device of the 'other' (Hillbillies, Mountain Men, Swamp Men) has been prodigiously over exploited by Hollywood from Boorman's Deliverance and a host of movies since. Cooper again brings nothing new to the idea, only replication and repetition.
The final sequence of film abrogates any moral claims Cooper might make for his movie. Folded into the film is a subplot with a racial dimension. In one of the opening scenes in the movie Russell has a black girl friend. During the stretch he serves for drunken driving, she leaves him for the town's black police chief. Although apparently in love with Russell, she choses black middle class respectability over white trash life style. The sexual competition between the two men is suggested but muted in the script. The image projected by Out of the Furnace is one of a matured interrace relations in which racist white attitudes have been completely eroded by liberal progressive states of mind. The problem is that this liberal optimism is countervailed by the film's core proposition of the schizoid character of the white American. And in the penultimate scene, where Russell is chasing and gunning down Harlan, the black cop in pursuit orders Russell to put down his gun and not shoot. Russell disobeys and kills Harlan. This resolution is dishonest and points to the difficulties white film makers have with race. The filmmakers lose their nerve and the plot. The only moral outcome for the plot was for the black cop to have killed Russell and Harlan to have escaped. The reality of the American Psyche is suppressed rage, which in the film is represented by Harrelson's Harlan. This demented schizo force is the one that eludes escapes and elides with the good, and the logic is that it should escape. Every slock horror film script writer and director knows this and intuitively understands the logic, even in parody, that this is what has to be. Cooper for whatever reason doesn't get it.Adrin Neatrour