The revenge drama holds a special place in American cinema. More than any society since pagan Greece we find satisfaction in watching a man achieve his desire over his enemies. The elements of the story are gratifying enough to have grown into a formula. The protagonist (nearly always a man of average temperament and social status) suffers a grievous injustice (typically the murder of a loved one) and finds that the authorities are either too apathetic or too corrupt to bring justice to the tragic predicament. The hero buys a gun, and we the audience sit back and watch the remainder of the show unfold in accordance with the more bloodthirsty wishes of the imprecatory psalms. The revenge tale in its classic form is anti-escapism at its purest. The invitation it offers is the opposite of that on hand in a romantic comedy. When you or I watch Pretty Woman we are not expected to believe that we would, in similar circumstances, propose marriage to a member of the world’s oldest profession, even if she did look like Julia Roberts. But when we stretch out in our recliners for a viewing of Straw Dogs we do begin to feel the uncomfortable temptation to identify with Dustin Hoffman’s outraged average joe just about at the point when he goes to work on his wife’s assailants with shotgun and fire poker. “Wouldn’t I do the same if thus provoked? And wouldn’t you?” We empathize even where we cannot excuse, and in our eyes the avenging hero acquires a kind of terrible grandeur, awfully fulfilling the darker purposes of the natural man at the expense of much humanity.
Out of the Furnace, directed by Scott Cooper and starring Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson, is the latest attempt at an American Oresteia. The plot centers around an Appalachian steel worker (Bale) and his brother (Affleck), both of whom have fallen on times so hard it’s an outrage that the film’s soundtrack features not even one Bruce Springsteen tune. Affleck’s traumatized ex-soldier is haunted and broke, suffering from a gambling addiction and also a drinking problem shared fraternally with Bale, who is incarcerated midway through act one after accidentally killing a mother and child in an alcohol-induced car collision. Here the plot begins to turn grim. Rodney (Affleck), desperate for cash, hires himself out as a bareknuckle boxer to Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat, a backwoods Tony Soprano who could teach the inbred ruffians from Deliverance a lesson or two in unprovoked viciousness. (The film’s opening scene features Harrelson’s character nearly choking to death a woman in a drive-in movie theater after she mildly questions his ability to drive home under the influence.) Things turn ugly, and DeGroat murders the obstinate Rodney after he gives a less than docile performance in a fixed fight. As convention demands, the police are no help whatsoever and Bale is left to resolve matters as best he may, and damn the torpedoes.
In a number of ways, Cooper’s direction and the cast’s collective abilities (proven veterans Willem Defoe and Sam Shepard are among the supporting players) lift the film a few steps above such limitations as we would anticipate. Bale’s chemistry with Affleck provides what is increasingly rare in mainstream film: a moment where actors do not merely portray persons but the relationships between them. Harrelson’s redneck villain suitably drifts between a grimy shiftlessness and outbursts of unpredictable cruelty. The cinematography captures the downtrodden visions of the Rust Belt with a poignancy well suited to the film’s blue collar desolation.
Bale, however, costs the picture something essential. Bale is not an inhibited performer, but the righteous anger required of him by the story’s latter half is absent from his performance. An actor less calculating and more direct in his methods might have brought more to the role. By the time of the final confrontation between Bale and Harrelson, Bale appears to have becalmed himself sufficiently to lead a meditative course in Zen Buddhism, and after his rising above so many other tragedies (prison, loss of loved ones) in the previous ninety minutes, are we to believe that he would turn avenging fury overnight? The loose ends demand a resolution which the film does not provide. Cooper and his cast deserve credit for their artistry, but Out of the Furnace deserves to be something more than lingering shots of the Appalachian hollows and a strong leading performance that ends in an unfortunate ellipse.