Film review – Out of the Furnace (2013)

22 March 2014
Christian Bale as Russell Baze

Christian Bale as Russell Baze

There is something mythical about the American blue-collar town where Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace is set. The hardworking and racially harmonious population are decent folk trying to get by, despite work drying up at the steel mill. Brothers Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) are good men, but afflicted by inner demons. One does time for manslaughter after a drink-driving accident, while the other is an Iraq War veteran with gambling debts that lead him into serious trouble.

What begins as an engaging drama about proud yet flawed working-class men becomes a silly revenge thriller involving drug dealing and bare-knuckle boxing. For a film so overtly set in the shadow of the Global Financial Crisis, it is disappointing that it abandons any opportunity for social critique. Instead the villains of the film are identified as cartoonish hillbillies, lead by a sociopathic Woody Harrelson. Out of the Furnace ultimately squanders its potential, resulting in a second-rate Winters Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) when it could’ve been a contemporary The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978).

Originally appeared in The Big Issue, No. 453, 2014

Thomas Caldwell, 2014

Film review – Crazy Heart (2009)

18 February 2010
Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges)

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges)

Former country music star Bad Blake is a character who is living the sort of life that is so often sung about in his chosen music genre. He’s 57, doing third-rate gigs, smoking too much, drinking too much and basically all washed up. While his former protégée Tommy Sweet has vastly overtaken him professionally Bad barely keeps it together by rehashing old songs from his back catalogue to his small, aging but still devoted fans scattered around country USA. Crazy Heart initially evokes Bruce Beresford’s 1983 Tender Mercies due to the strong similarities between the settings and the films’ leading characters but it is a superior film.

Jeff Bridges gives the performance of his career as Bad. It’s a part that Bridges has been building up to for years while playing various down-and-out heroes and indeed Bad Blake is not too dissimilar to the jazz pianist character he played in the The Fabulous Baker Boys. Such a character could easily be dislikeable but Bridges gives him a cranky charm and sweet sadness. He is frazzled, lives like a slob and very grumpy but the shine in Bridge’s eyes and the cracks in his voice make us love him.

Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) and Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal)

The entire cast of Crazy Heart is excellent including Colin Farrell as Tommy Sweet and Robert Duvall as Bad’s old friend Wayne. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays Jean, a young divorcee who comes into Bad’s life, and it is wonderful to see a strong female character that is allowed to be both emotional and resilient. The development of Bad and Jean’s relationship is one of the many aspects of Crazy Heart that feels incredibly sincere and genuine. Rather than adhering to the sort of classical Hollywood narrative structure that we are accustomed to seeing in such films, Crazy Heart adopts an authenticity that raises it above what could have been a generic tale of redemption.

Then there are the sensational songs, many of which are performed by Bridges and Farrell, written for the film by T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton. The music performed in Crazy Heart actually becomes more engaging and sophisticated during the course of the film as the characters move from performing songs that are reliable old favourites to trying out more emotive and complex material. You don’t need to be a country music fan to enjoy Crazy Heart but there is a good chance you will become one afterwards thanks to this gracefully restrained and sweet drama.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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