Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
Say it ain't so that the American Dream has turned into a gloomy, cynical nightmare. Is all hope really lost? Do America's best days really belong to the past?
Those were some of the thoughts I had watching "Out of the Furnace", the new atmospheric drama set in America's Rust Belt and colored in shades of deep browns and grays and ill-fatedness.
The Rust Belt is that swath of northeastern America stretching from parts of New York state, moving westward through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, into Illinois and Wisconsin. The nickname symbolizes a dried up manufacturing sector moved out of the country and sold to the lowest bidder these last few decades. You may remember the Rust Belt Super Bowl a couple years back involving teams (Green Bay vs. Pittsburgh) named after jobs that no longer exist.
This is where we meet the Baze family of Braddock, PA, circa 2008. Christian Bale is Russell Baze and he works in the proverbial furnace of the town's steel mill, following in dad's footsteps, who now lies on his deathbed. Casey Affleck is younger brother Rodney, about to be stop-lossed into his fourth tour of duty in Iraq. And there's good ol' Uncle Sam (Shepard, that is) who keeps watch over his dying brother. His character's name is actually Red, but nevermind, it might as well be Uncle Sam, a variation of all his most recent roles.
Russell's an inherently good man, loyal to his family, his job, and his hot girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana). When Rodney--a degenerate gambler who suffers from untreated PTSD from the war--finds himself in a hole owing $1,500 to a local shark named Petty (Willem Dafoe), Russell's there to settle the debt.
At this point, we're well on our way to one of those classic American who-we-are-now dramas. Until, that is, Russell rams his pick-up truck into a car that has backed out of a dark driveway one night, killing the mother and young child inside. Off to prison Russell goes in a screenplay that becomes an exercise of piling on plot developments that put our characters through the wringer.
A few years pass. Dad has died, Lena has married the town sheriff (Forest Whitaker, who lends cred in a small role) and Rodney's become so indebted to Petty that he pays the man back by competing in illegal and brutal bare-knuckle fights. Apparently this family hasn't heard of the VA, since his disability would pay him more per month than the pittance he gets for throwing fights to his opponents.
A free man once more, Russell goes back to work and tries picking up the pieces in a heartbreaking sequence where he and Lena meet on a bridge, spark all over again, though by now it's too late with Lena sporting a bun in the oven.
Meanwhile, the fight sequences involving Rodney and Petty take us to the hills of New Jersey and Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) the meanest s.o.b. you ever did meet. He's the first character we're introduced to in this movie in a total superfluous scene meant to show just how bad he is. As if looking at him wasn't enough of a clue, he stuffs a hot dog down his date's throat (suppose that'll make her want to call him back?) and pulverizes a man who's come to help her. It's a terrific role for Harrelson, but it belongs in a different movie.
After Petty and Rodney go missing and local authorities are tepid about entering to investigate, that leaves our man Russell to find his brother himself.
Scott Cooper's sophomore directing feature is a close call for me. His first film was the Oscar-winning "Crazy Heart" featuring Jeff Bridges, one of the best movies of 2009. Cooper understands well the rhythms of American life. You feel the classic American stories that have come before in both of his films. An actor first, you get the feeling he loves to set his actors free to play, yet this screenplay never allows them any breathing space to live or to negotiate their lives. These characters don't lead the story forward; the plot leads them.
What begins as a character study turns into a prison movie, a fight club movie, then a noirish revenge thriller failing to generate suspense or thrills. And it all comes at us with a kind of fatalistic notion of the world, bordering on nihilism. Times are tough, bad luck abounds, the American Dream is dead and hell awaits, this movie seems to be saying.
I could feel myself pushing back against that undercurrent the entire second half of the film, which has been compared in some circles with "The Deer Hunter" in its depiction of steeltown life and the treatment of soldiers returning home from war. Yet even in the post-Vietnam years, when America's finest found that they were apparently fighting for the freedom to come home and sleep under bridges and on park benches, it was an America that still dreamed of better days.
"Out of the Furnace" is superbly acted all around. I really felt for those two brothers even if I didn't much care for the glib and gloomy narrative they occupy, in a story deserving more character attention and less plot.