'Out of the Furnace': Christian Bale's greatest performance

Posted by · 12:17 am · November 10th, 2013

Scott Cooper”s “Out of the Furnace” received its close-up at AFI Fest Saturday night as the mystery around Relativity Media’s late-breaking entry finally dissipated. The director”s “Crazy Heart” follow-up brought an array of reactions, and “shell-shocked,” as The Wrap”s Steve Pond put it, may be as apt a description as you’ll find. The film seemed to linger at the Roosevelt Hotel after-party with more than a few willing to admit they weren”t entirely sure what to make of it immediately after the credits rolled.

But the film did find some champions out of the gate. In shrewdly noting “Furnace’s” easy fit in a breed of 2013 cinema concerned with the dark side of America, Pond called the picture “bold and brutal,” while at the trades, Todd McCarthy and Scott Foundas drew comparisons to “Apocalypse Now” and “The Deer Hunter” respectively.

“Things happen in ‘Out of the Furnace’ with the violent, unpredictable force of life itself, rather than the reassuring rhythms of most screenplays,” Foundas wrote. “Director-co-writer Scott Cooper’s second feature shares a similar melancholy, end-of-the-line tone with his first, ‘Crazy Heart,'” McCarthy observed, with a more measured tone than Foundas.

I don”t expect the film to be immediately palatable to everyone, as audiences frankly aren”t all that conditioned for a film with a dark patience such as this. Though maybe I don’t give them enough credit. It will linger, no doubt. For me, the stunning chiaroscuro of Masanobu Takayanagi’s photography is a big takeaway, to be sure, but something that has stood out since the very first time I saw the film and has managed to only deepen upon consequent viewings is Christian Bale’s unparalleled leading performance as Russell Baze.

Bale has delivered a steady stream of outwardly intense performances throughout his career. Particularly turns in films like “American Psycho,” “The Machinist” and “The Fighter” (for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar) have stood out because of how bright and complex they are. But that’s the dividing line between something like Dicky Ecklund and something like Russell Baze. Those performances, as mesmerizing as they are, are just that: mesmerizing. You’re aware of them from beginning to end because they have a Baroque touch.

But the actor is typically best, and indeed, more comfortable, disappearing into a role and just being. It’s not that he doesn’t do that even in some of his broader performances. He does, better than anyone in his generation, probably. But perhaps because Cooper is intensely focused on stripping away affect, or because Bale is hungry for such an opportunity (or, more likely, a healthy combination of both), the actor’s work in “Out of the Furnace” is a landmark for him. It’s the best performance he has ever delivered, and obviously, that’s saying something.

The evidence is frequently clear in Bale’s sparring with his co-stars, particularly Casey Affleck, who also delivers a rich, lived-in portrait and helps elevate both his and Bale’s work through an uncanny on-screen chemistry with the actor. The two play brothers in the film and you believe their deep family history through every seemingly mundane cutaway detail, whether playfully revving engines on a Braddock, Penn. street or caring for their ailing father with the clockwork attention that suggests a daily routine.

With actress Zoe Saldana, Bale gets a truly emotional beat when registering an unforeseen dead end for his life goals. With Forest Whitaker, he gets quiet moments of seething, thinly guarded composure in the face of an unfortunate series of events. With Sam Shepard, he gets the casual ease of family interaction that doesn’t need a word or a sentence, but rather a glance or a nod.

On his own, Bale barely gets the words out when tragedy strikes early in the film – indeed, they aren’t words, but rather the haunted, scratchy mumbles of a life instantly changed. He inhabits Russell, supplying a tricky regional blend of accent that was with him from the moment he got off a Pittsburgh plane ready to work, to the final call of “cut” on the set. Though as storied as Bale’s commitment may be, he never overdoes any measure of the work, and certainly not here. Everything here feeds the kind of boiled-down performance that never enjoys such breathless descriptions as “towering,” but should.

Around the corner Bale looks to have a Rupert Pupkin to this Michael Vronsky as he saddles up to yet another David O. Russell project in “American Hustle.” Bald with a comb-over, weight gain, loud costumes, the physical commitment is once again evident. And all of that accoutrement will surely feed another fantastic portrayal. But what he’s doing in “Out of the Furnace” is the essence of performance. It is bare. It is haunted. It is real.

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