Friday, February 21, 2014

"Out of the Furnace" and "Ain't Them Bodies Saints" Squander Strengths by Overreaching

Despite it's drawbacks, there is a palpable emotional undercurrent to
Out of the Furnace, largely due to Bale's stellar performance.
I recently took in two extremely well-reviewed Casey Affleck movies – Out of the Furnace and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints – and my feelings about them are so similar that it made sense to throw them together in the same review.

Both are stripped-down entries that admirably avoid artifice and offer subtle, lived-in work from a talented assortment of actors. But both also take narratives that would normally make for fun, pulpy b-movies and turn them into somber, artsy-fartsy ballads straining for profundity.

I’m all about subverting genre conventions, and as a general rule I’m not against these sort of lyrical meditations – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford does something similar, and it’s one of my favorite films (oddly enough, it also stars Affleck as a troubled outsider). But going this route can totally defang a story, turning what could be something worthwhile into a boring and opaque disappointment.

Of the two, Out of the Furnace is the superior film. It stars Christian Bale as a hard-working grunt at a steel mill who lands in jail after a fatal drunk driving accident. While incarcerated, he loses his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) to a local cop (Forest Whitaker) and misses out on the remaining days of his sickly father. The only thing he retains is the love of his troubled brother (Affleck), a restless and emotionally damaged Iraqi War veteran who falls into a bare-knuckle brawling ring populated by some shady criminals, including a mostly honorable loan shark (Willem Dafoe) and a homicidal maniac (Woody Harrelson).

The film has a lot going for it. All the actors are in peak form, insinuating as much character and personality as is possible with such a bare bones approach. Bale shares a particularly good scene with Saldana that brutally exhibits what his mistake cost him, and his brotherly bond with Affleck is believably wrought.

There’s also a nicely modulated mournfulness hovering over this story of blue collar hardship, and it has a good thread at its core. I could easily imagine all of these components adding up to an excellent drama about a good man who did a bad thing and is now left to pick up the pieces. Instead, writer/director Scott Copper gets bogged down with exploring unsatisfying revenge elements. The film builds to its logical conclusion and ends with a boldly tantalizing final image, but it’s all just so limp.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints embraces a Malick-like aesthetic.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints fairs worse because the character dynamics aren’t as engrossing and the bad guys are woefully undefined. It focuses on Ruth (Rooney Mara) and Bob (Affleck), Bonnie and Clyde types who get involved in a robbery gone wrong and end up in a shootout during which Ruth shoots a cop (Ben Foster). Since Ruth is pregnant with their child, Bob takes the fall, claiming Ruth was an innocent victim in all of it.

Several years later, Ruth is on the straight and narrow, leading a simple life with her daughter Sylvie. When Bob breaks out of prison prepared to whisk his family away, Ruth has to consider what’s right for her daughter. There’s also the matter of that cop Ruth shot, who in investigating Bob’s jailbreak grows closer to her and Sylvie.

Once again, there are things to like – the setup is decent, the cinematography is breathtaking and the acting is top-notch – but writer/director David Lowery’s emphasis is put so emphatically on the picturesque landscape and poetic atmosphere that the whole thing plays as if on mute. Once Bob breaks out, he not only has to worry about the law, but also three shady goons out for blood, and it is never explained where these baddies came from. Some might see this ambiguity as strength, but it only works to add confusion.

These movies have their share of positives, but ultimately they are just too ponderous and intentionally vague to register as great films. I imagine a certain type of person would go gagga over their delicate sinew or something like that, but there’s just a lifelessness to them that left me wanting more. Out of the Furnace B, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints C+