While not quite in the pantheon of powerhouse that the filmmakers intended it to be, Scott Cooper’s Out Of The Furnace is still a bleak, devastating picture. This is a film about endings, and not resolute, satisfactory ones either. Set in a borderline derelict mining town somewhere in the rust belt, industry has come to a grinding halt, giving way to the inevitable rise of rural crime, spreading like a cancer across land that once flourished and prospered. Every character in the film meets their bitter end somehow, and what’s fascinating is that earlier in life they all could have been more whole, and come from some other, brighter genre film, but the lives they’ve led set them on the same course as their county, and one by one we see them reach the last bend in the road, and the light in their life unceremoniously flicker out, leaving a cold shell. If I’m making this sound depressing, I’m doing my job well. This is a soul crushing film, with no light at either end of the tunnel and all glimmers of hope already extinguished before the opening titles even show up, so just make sure you have Finding Nemo or Wallace & Gromit queued up next in line if you give it a go. Opening with a prologue that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you know right off the bat what you’re in for, as we’re introduced to Woody Harrelson’s Harlan Groat, an absolute monster who runs everything from underground fight clubs to an intricate web of meth trade in the region. Groat is at odds with steelworker Russell Baze (An implosive Christian Bale), a hard man with anger issues just looking for an excuse to get fired up. Russell’s brother Rodney (Casey Affleck in the film’s best work) is a broken Iraqi war vet who got on the wrong side of Groat’s gang, and has since disappeared. Since the law won’t venture into the near mythic backwood hills where Groat skulks, Baze goes vigilante, waging personal war and raging against a light that has long since gone dead. This is a big cast we’re looking at here, and some of the subplots either distract from the main show or just seem like overkill, like Zoe Zaldana as Russell’s ex who has since shacked up with the local Sheriff (Forest Whitaker), or an underused Sam Shepherd as his uncle Red. Willem Dafoe has a nice bit as a seedy but sympathetic local gangster though, it’s always nice to see him, as well as Tom Bower as the salt of the earth bartender. It’s all about Woody and the danger he brings, he’s terrifying in the most mundane of exchanges, and lethal when he gets worked up. The feeling of economic decay follows him like a noxious cloud, his brittle ruthlessness a mascot for the hard times that many a town in the US has fallen on in recent years. One need only look at the poster to see the obvious and intentional shades of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and though the film wears its influences on its heavy flannel sleeve, it finds its own dark, despairing poetry, and leaves you gutted in the final, anticlimactic frame.
Scott Cooper’s sophomore film Out Of The Furnace follows Russell Baze (Christian Bale) through the empty, broken down streets of Braddock Pennsylvania like a lonesome ghost. He works in the local steel mill where his slowly dying father once worked, using what little money he makes to pay off his brother Rodney Jr.’s (Casey Affleck) gambling debts to sleazy local bookie John Petty (Willem Dafoe), all the while trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend Lena Taylor (Zoe Saldana). That all comes crashing down when Russell gets into trouble with the law and spends the next four years in prison, getting periodic visits from Rodney with updates on the state of their father’s health, Lena, and Rodney’s own exploits overseas in Iraq. Both men are broken and trying to keep it together for the sake of each other.
In due time Russell is released back into Braddock, the once thriving city on the verge of death with the mill soon to be closed. Things are different now for Russell, the times have changed, people have changed, and he has no other choice but to suck it up and trudge forward into the unforeseeable future. Rodney has picked up a deadly new habit, bare knuckle boxing, his way of violently paying off his debts to Petty before the stack gets too high. Russell tries talking him into a “normal” job to no avail; after multiple horrific tours of duty in Iraq, Rodney has been left shaken, twitchy, and is a mere shell of the man he once was. All that seems to be left is violence, anger, and undying love for Russell. Rodney begs John Petty to get him into bigger fights in backwoods New Jersey, dirtier, bloodier fights held under the watchful eye of local sociopathic hillbilly Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).
By this point in a standard issue revenge thriller, Rodney would have been long dead, but Cooper wisely makes the decision to give us time to settle into this world, and come to understand characters who feel like people, and not just cardboard cut outs. That the latter half of the movie devolves somewhat predictably into the same kind of movie it was previously avoiding replication of, is a disappointment. However, what does occur is given room to breathe. Cooper might be following the tropes of the genre, but he at least has the sense to let it unfold slowly and organically. Very little feels forced.
Things quickly turn ugly for Rodney and Petty, and when both go missing, the local law led by sheriff Wesley Barnes, exhausts all possible means in an attempt to find the pair, but can only go far because law enforcement lives in fear of DeGroat’s brutal reign of the area, and the fact that it’s outside of Braddock police’s jurisdiction doesn’t help matters either. So Russell and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) cautiously take matters into their own hands the only way they know how.
Christian Bale delivers his most believable performance to date, fully embodying the heart and soul of Russell Baze, right down to the slightest nuances and subtleties of the man. He’s a truly masterful actor, strutting his stuff in such low-key fashion that because of the deep naturalism, rawness, and intense realism he imbues, within the first few minutes it stops feeling like a performance. It becomes, real, as Russell battles his inner demons and carries the weight of the world on his lean shoulders right up until the final frames fade to black.
Woody Harrelson knocks it out of the ball park as Jersey backwoods hillbilly sociopath Harlan DeGroat, topping his wildly over-the-top performance as Mickey in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. If you thought Mickey was a bad dude, wait until you watch DeGroat force a hot dog down the throat of a woman at a drive-in movie theatre in the films unnerving opening sequence. Harrelson has an uncanny ability of inhabiting even the most repulsive of villains with some semblance of humanity, and toward the end of the film does so with nothing more than an all-knowing expression upon his face and burning in his eyes as he delivers a couple heartfelt lines.
With this performance, Casey Affleck shed the boyish light his previous performances have always been garnished with, trading it in for a toned body and volatile outbursts of pent-up rage. He gives the more energetic performance of the two brothers, effortlessly capturing Rodney’s broken down mannerisms. Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard each provide the right amount of nuance and naturalism to their perfomances that blend evenly with their bleak surroundings and the trio of astounding lead performances.
In a scene near the midsection of the film, Russell and Lena have a conversation on a bridge about their future after Russell has been released from prison. Despite Russell’s plea to make things right between them, Lena cannot commit to him anymore because she’s carrying Barnes’ child. In a moment that ought to shatter even the hardest of hearts into a million pieces, Russell congratulates Lena, assuring her she’ll be a good mom amidst tears from both of them. This scene assuredly carries the finest moments of acting we’ve seen from Bale and Saldana to date.
The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey) is impeccable, capturing beautifully and quite often starkly, the dreary and dirty grit of Braddock, the crispness of the violence, the cold bitterness of the dialogue dripping from the tongue of the people inhabiting the film. Scott Cooper directs this film with ease, honestly and authentically capturing the bleak essence of the dying town, the harsh realities of the effects the economy is having on the people, and the brutality that is the violence that twists their worlds upside down in the blink of an eye.
Everyone was waiting. Leonard Maltin was waiting, Roger Durling was waiting, Scott Cooper was waiting, the press was waiting, and the giant mob of screaming fans were waiting. Johnny Depp was running late, and nobody cared. Depp arrived thirty minutes late. He was set to receive the Leonard Maltin Modern Master Award from BLACK MASS director, Scott Cooper as well as participating in a much anticipated Q&A with Leonard Maltin.
He arrived in a black Cadillac SUV and once he exited he instantly disobeyed his handlers and went directly to the vast mob of his fans. He took his time signing autographs, taking photographs, and shaking each hand he could. Depp then moved to the red carpet, timidly keeping away from the press yet posing for a gracious amount of time for photos against the sleek SBIFF backdrop. He posed with Scott Cooper and then he quickly was moved to the end of the press line, but I caught his attention:
“Mr. Depp, one quick question: DONNIE BRASCO, ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, and SWEENEY TODD. Which is your favorite role?”
He put his hand up to his mouth, held his chin, stared right at me through his blue Michael Mann tinted glasses and said,
“I don’t know. That’s difficult, man.”
Depp was quickly moved into the Arlington Theatre and the floodgates opened and everyone rushed in. Once the gorgeous Arlington Theatre settled down, the dapper Roger Durling took the stage and he spoke graciously, thanking everyone for being there and thanked Johnny Depp for coming.
Maltin then took the stage and he introduced Depp and an excellently edited highlight reel played. Watching a brief highlight of Depp’s career doesn’t do it justice, yet you can’t help feeling overwhelmed by his truly epic career.
Depp walked out, and the theatre erupted with applause and screaming. Depp shyly smiled. To this day, Johnny Depp is the epitome of cool. He was wearing socks with hemp leaf patterns and for about the first hour and a half of the Q&A, he meticulously hand rolled a perfect cigarillo. He then lit it and took the rest of the Q&A slowly smoking it. In California, and pretty much anywhere else, it is illegal to smoke in a public venue, but who is going to tell Johnny Depp to stop smoking?
Depp is a very sweet guy, he’s incredibly humbled. Whenever Maltin would bring up a film, whether it was one of Depp’s blockbusters or a seminal undercard performance, the audience would clap and Depp would smile and thank the audience.
The Q&A with Leonard Maltin was almost three hours long and it was wonderful. I was able to ask Leonard Maltin two quick question on the red carpet, I asked him to pick between DONNIE BRASCO, ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO and SWEENEY TODD. Maltin paused for a moment and said DONNIE BRASCO. I then asked him what his favorite underrated performance of Depp’s was and he said, without hesitation, DON JUAN DEMARCO.
It took about an hour for Depp to warm up and get comfortable. He was incredibly candid about his career. He spoke frankly about how he’s a musician, who happened to become an actor to pay the rent. He spoke in depth about what a horror he was, and sometimes still is, on film sets. Maltin asked him about his relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of WHAT’S EATING GILBERT GRAPE. Johnny Depp just started laughing.
“You know, I respect Leo a lot. He did so much work and research and preparation for that role,” and a sly smile arose on his face, “and I tortured him.”
The audience started laughing, and Depp stopped, and looked at the audience,
“No, really, I did. He liked video games. No Leo, I won’t give you a drag of my cigarette while you hide from your Mom.”
Depp briefly spoke about his work with John Waters, saying how Waters was the only filmmaker he knew who made a film based on a title. He said Waters came up with the idea of PECKER, solely for the fact that when it would be advertised it would be: John Waters’ PECKER Coming Soon.
When Depp was asked about his casting in EDWARD SCISSOR HANDS and his long and awesome collaboration with Tim Burton, Depp started laughing. He spoke about how he didn’t want to even meet with Burton, he knew he wouldn’t get the part, but his agent Tiffany talked him into it. Depp recalled walking into a diner to meet Burton. He had no idea what he looked like. He scanned the diner and saw a guy “whose hair looked like a hardware store exploded, and I knew I had to talk to him. Even if he wasn’t Tim, I still had to talk to him.” The man with the exploded hair was Tim Burton, and that was the beginning of one of the greatest collaborations in cinema history.
Leonard Maltin beamed as he showed a clip of DON JUAN DEMARCO and then asked him about that film, and working with Marlon Brando. Depp settled back in his chair and smiled, and spoke about his abundant love and admiration for Brando. He said he was a father, mentor, brother, essentially a gigantic blanket that meant the world to Depp. When Maltin asked Depp to describe what he learned from Brando, he paused looked down, and then back up at Maltin and said: justice.
Maltin asked Depp about the only film he directed, THE BRAVE that premiered at Cannes in 1997 and featured Marlon Brando in a prominent role. Maltin asked when we could see it. Depp asked the audience who wanted to buy it. He then went on to speak about the reason he shelved the film was because he didn’t want to play the distribution game, and he wanted to retain control over it.
In 2004, when Brando died, Depp was devastated and he was receiving offers about releasing THE BRAVE. He was told it was a prime time to release the film, it was an unseen Brando performance, and now was the time to release it. That’s the moment when Depp decided to put the film under lock and key. He was returning justice back to Marlon Brando. Maltin then said that releasing it now wouldn’t be an exploiting Brando’s death. Depp then said he would show THE BRAVE at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival next year, and shook Maltin’s hand on it.
So in theory, next year, Johnny Depp will be premiering his unicorn of a film, THE BRAVE, at the 32nd Santa Barbara International Film Festival. That remains to be seen, but seeing Depp speak, in depth, for three hours about his remarkable career was amazing. After the Q&A was over, Depp went back outside to all his screaming fans and took more photographs and signed as many autographs as he could. Johnny Depp is not only one of cinema’s best actors, but he’s truly a class act.