It’s set in modern Pennsylvania, but there’s an Old Testament quality to the imagery of fire in Out of the Furnace (15A).
Russell (Christian Bale) is fired in the kiln of a hardworking life spent in front of the blazing furnace of a steel mill. His brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), survives repeated fiery tours of Iraq. Their nemesis, Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), trails fire and brimstone in his wake. Scott Cooper’s slow-burning tale of tragedy, revenge and justice opens in the bleak surrounds of Braddock, a town suffering badly as the price of steel plummets and jobs dry up. When Rodney, desperate to pay off a debt to Petty (Willem Dafoe), volunteers to fight bare knuckle in the backwoods badlands of the Appalachian Mountains, things go horribly wrong. The police, led by Chief Barnes (Forest Whitaker), are helpless to discover the whereabouts of Rodney, so Russell, with the help of his uncle, Gerald (Sam Shepard), takes matters into his own hands. That’s the narrative spine of Out of the Furnace, but the story is a layered, nuanced one that sets Russell’s journey towards redemption in the context of an America in which the American Dream has soured into what looks like a dystopian nightmare. Zoe Saldana, playing Russell’s girlfriend, offers an optimistic counterpoint to the grim fatalism of the overall tone, but even she evolves into a ruthless pragmatist when she needs to make decisions about her future. Strongly influenced by the wave of post-Vietnam War movies of the late 1970s, Out of the Furnace owes a particular debt to The Deer Hunter, one that Cooper is more than happy to acknowledge. In an excellent ensemble cast, Bale, Affleck and Harrelson are superb as they barrel towards a conflagration that will consume them all or purify them in the flames.
Lone Survivor (16s) offers a more direct experience of war. Four Navy Seals — played by Mark Wahlberg, Michael Murphy, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster — chopper into a mountainous area of Afghanistan with orders to target and kill a Taliban leader, Shah (Yousuf Azami). Hampered by patchy communications, the quartet’s mission is further complicated when they are discovered by goat herders. Should they kill the civilians and continue, or release their prisoners, abort the mission and hope to escape? Directed by Peter Berg, Lone Survivor is based on a true story, and suffers a little from an uneven tone. The opening credits, for example, inform the audience that the Navy Seals are the roughest, toughest fighters on the planet; but when the Seals go on the run in Afghanistan, pursued by Taliban fighters, we are expected to root for them as victims of overwhelming violence. Oddly, Berg includes a number of touches that suggests he has a contemporary Western in mind, which casts the native Afghanis in the role of the old-fashioned Western’s savage ‘Red Indians’. The politics of the piece aside, it’s a powerful war movie, a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride that rarely pauses for breath. The frequent action sequences are expertly filmed, and offer a terrifically claustrophobic sense of the chaos and mayhem of the Seals’ experience.
The trouble with too many romantic comedies is the predictability with which the leading lovebirds fall head over heels, so That Awkward Moment (15A) offers a scenario in which our heroes — Jason (Zac Efron), Daniel (Miles Teller) and Mikey (Michael B Jordan) — simply refuse to fall in love. Tired of dodging the awkwardness that arises when it’s time for casual sex to mature into something more, best friends Jason, Daniel and Mikey pledge to stay single forever. Naturally, Cupid intervenes, when new girl Ellie (Imogen Poots), best buddy Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis) and ex-wife Vera (Jessica Lucas), respectively, surface to tempt the guys’ hearts. Constructed like a sitcom episode — the one where they decide not to fall in love — the negative goal results in a lack of narrative drive as the story wanders around looking for something the characters can actually aim for, while broad comic moments are shoehorned in with varied results. Jason and Ellie may look far too young to be convincing as doctors who both own vinyl record collections, but Efron and Poots do work well together, even if their chemistry doesn’t extend to the rest of the movie.
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