I had a friend who once worked in a dive hotel in Chicago. It was a pretty wretched place to be employed, but he revealed a universal truth to me that he learned during his time there: no matter how bad things are, you can always find someone or something to look down on. In his particular case, no matter how awful working at the hotel was, my friend and his fellow employees would tell themselves, well, at least we’re not working at the *, a hotel down the street that God only knows how was even one step lower than the one he was at.
I thought of that as I was watching Out of the Furnace, the new action/thriller written by Brad Inglesby and Scott Cooper and directed by Cooper. Only a few weeks before, I had seen Nebraska, another film about an under the weather America. But no matter how bleak and despairing the situation was for the Grant family in that first film, at least they didn’t have the problems of the brothers Russell and Rodney Blaze (played by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck respectively). The Grants could always tell themselves that at least they didn’t have to deal with “inbreds” (or who we called hillbillies when I was growing up—though the Clampetts these people are not).
The world of Out of the Furnace is far, far bleaker than the one inhabited by Bruce Dern. And to add insult to injury, …Furnace is in full color (no romantic distancing of the subject matter here). The economy of the working class neighborhood in …Furnace is not the best (and a little odd—Russell tells Rodney in one scene that he can give him a future by getting him hired at the local steel mill, while in the next scene, he tells his Uncle the mill’s going to close soon with the jobs being sent to China). The weather looks overcast even on the most summery of days. And everybody’s eyes reflect deep depression and/or despair, no matter how wide their smiles are.
And on top of it all, there’s those creepy, crawly sociopathic inbreds (which in this movie is pretty redundant), headed by the psychopathic Harlan DeGroat (played by Woody Harrelson, which also might be a tad redundant). Like cockroaches, they’ve come to the big cities (or bigger cities) to spread their filth and disease.
Out of the Furnace is a well made movie in many ways. The cinematography paints a depressing world of a working class with little hope. The sets all have that remarkably realistic lived in look. The costumes feel store bought or taken out of a closet. There is a patina of sincerity and hard work by everyone involved that colors the whole thing. It’s difficult to just dismiss it.
But it never quite works. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that it is structurally wobbly. The movie ultimately is supposed to be about the relationship of the two brothers. But too much of the film (especially the first third), almost solely focuses on Russell, his relationship problems and what happens when he drunkenly hits another car killing a little boy and ends up behind bars. None of this really has anything to do with the siblings, and I was never quite sure why the writers went there.
But this unbalanced emphasis leads to other problems. First, by not fully dramatizing Rodney and his issues, Rodney never comes to life like he should (at one point, he has a big speech about how awful Iraq was and what it did to him and how it made him the reckless person he is now; but so little time has been devoted to Rodney, he sounds more like he’s offering excuses rather than convincing reasons).
Second, it robs the story of a solid build. For quite a long time, the story just doesn’t seem to be going anywhere and it takes a bit too long for it to really get started. The authors try to get around that by having DeGroat arbitrarily show up in a couple of early scenes, but it doesn’t really do the trick. The movie just seems to meander along with no real purpose for far too long.
And the authors depend a bit too much on clichés. Rodney is going to do that one last fight that will pay off his debt and then he will do whatever his older brother tells him, settling down and working at the mill. The last fight twist is so reminiscent of every other western, police drama and boxing movie, it’s hard to see it as anything but the authors’ struggling for some sort of teary-eyed empathy from the audience. And it’s not remotely believable. There is no way, based on the movie up until then, that I’d believe Rodney will settle down if this fight goes right. His character hasn’t been set up for that.
How much you like …Furnace will probably depend on how much you like the acting. It’s basically divided into two camps, the very, very, very methody approach (very) of Bale and Affleck (I mean, they meth all over the place). Most people have loved their performances, but for me, they were hit or miss (with a few cringe worthy moments), with expressions and line readings that call attention to themselves and often throw the rhythms of their dialog and their relationship off.
Because of this, for me the acting honors are actually stolen by two supporting characters who simply relax into their characters and never push it: Sam Shepard as the brothers’ uncle and Tom Bower as a bartender who doesn’t want any trouble, but finds it anyway.
The ending is also a bit too ambiguous. It’s understandable in many ways that Russell decides to take the law into his own hands (his frustration at the way the authorities handle his brother’s death is convincing). But by doing so, it leads to the demise of someone totally innocent. So how are we supposed to feel about Russell’s final success in avenging Rodney’s murder? Russell may not have killed the character DeGroat did, but he’s just as responsible and nearly as guilty for it. But the writers chose to turn this second victim into chopped liver and I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel about that.
Aftermath, the new Polish film written and directed by Wladyslaw Paskikowksi (who also wrote the great Andrzej Wajda’s powerful Katyn), has reviews from 11 top critics on rottentomatoes.com. Meanwhile, All is Lost has 42, Philomena has 39 and the aforementioned Out of the Furnace has 40. Why is a mystery to me, since this film is easily as good, or far better, than those three, as well as many, if not most, other films playing right now. In fact, Aftermath seems to have snuck into town with no fanfare to herald it, ignored by one and all in the critic biz. And it’s a shame.
Of course, I have no right to cast stones here. It had been playing a month, bouncing from one art house theater to another, before I got around to seeing it, and kudos to the audience who has been keeping it alive. Because Aftermath is a powerful and moving film about how two brothers are affected by a dark secret involving their small Polish village and their family during World War II.
The story basically resolves around Franciszek Kalina who is returning to his home town of Gurowka after not having been back for twenty years (one reason is that he didn’t dare return while the country was still under Communist control). He’s back because his sister-in-law and nephew suddenly showed up on his doorstep in Chicago and he wants to know what his brother, Jozef, did to send them packing. And it soon turns out that Jozef has somewhat of an unusual obsession—after a rain storm has washed away enough mud to reveal that a road has been paved with gravestones from a Jewish cemetery, Jozef has been moving the stones to one of the fields in the family farm. But his actions are not supported by the town. And why is the central secret driving the story.
Franciszek is played by Ireneuz Czop and Jozef by Maciej Stuhr and they both give strong and empathetic performances. They have rather typical character arcs. At the same time, they are just unusual and interesting enough to be compelling. Francizek is very anti-semitic (he calls Jews Yids and blames them for the problems he has getting ahead in Chicago in the construction business—they control it all, you see) and he thinks that Jozef is ridiculous in what he’s doing. Meanwhile, Jozef, for reasons he doesn’t fully understand, feels guilty over what happened in the village and feels the need to make amends (even though he doesn’t know what the amends are for and anyway, he wasn’t even alive at the time).
As the story goes on and deeper secrets are revealed, the brothers change places. Francizek becomes the one who is obsessed with revealing everything and getting those gravestones into that field. At first it’s for no other reason than when people keep telling him not to do something, he’s the sort of person who just has to do it. But eventually, it’s the horror of what happened that takes over and he soon feels compelled to do what is morally right.
Meanwhile, as the deeper truths are uncovered, it’s more horrifying than Jozef ever imagined, and he becomes the one who now wants to stop, to not dig any deeper, to keep what happened in the past in the past. But some things can never be forgotten and the sins of the father sometimes have no choice but to be visited on the sons.
Aftermath is not an easy film to watch, but it’s a worthy one.