In defence of Out of the Furnace: Why Christian Bale is the greatest Hollywood actor of his generation
What better way to celebrate Christian Bale’s birthday than by talking about his work, especially since it is the actual work that he does – acting, ya’ll – that is inevitably sidelined in most discussions about him. We know of his commitment to his movies – how could we not, after the torture he insists on putting his body through, year after year. We know of his intensity; it is difficult to forget that leaked audio from the sets of Terminator Salvation, in which he is heard – let’s not be polite about it – verbally abusing a crew member. But now that he is 44, this fearless experimentation with his – as Chuck Palahniuk would put it – ‘decaying organic mass’ has to invoke second thoughts. The ill-mannered behaviour has to be tamed.
At this stage in Bale’s career, there’s very little doubt that he is the finest Hollywood actor of his generation. This is not a statement I make without careful thought. But after weighing some of the other contenders – Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Michael Shannon, Denzel Washington, Tom Hanks, Joaquin Phoenix, Edward Norton, Sean Penn and even Daniel Day Lewis (phew) – it became increasingly difficult to argue against Bale. His range is simply staggering. The length and breadth of his filmography could put more experienced actors to shame.
And never is his natural talent more fearsome than in Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, perhaps his most underrated film (and performance), and hence an ideal mouthpiece with which to make this point. In it, Bale proved that he doesn’t need fat suits (or bat suits) to stand out. He doesn’t need thick prosthetics and he doesn’t need to starve himself.
This is Bale at his most raw, most vulnerable, with nothing to shield him. There’s no protective layer of makeup to hind behind, there isn’t even much flowery language with which to posture. All he needs is a story, and a cast of great actors to play with. And the supporting players in Out of the Furnace are some of the best working today (or any day, really) – Willem Dafoe, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forrest Whitaker and Sam Shepard – each of them giving a performance that is louder, more boisterous than Bale’s.
And that’s usually his job. Christian Bale has made a career out of playing the livewire and overpowering everyone else in the frame, often going off on tangents that seem almost improvised. Who knows, maybe they are. He certainly has those moments in Out of the Furnace, most memorably when he released from prison. And this predictability is perhaps why his Bruce Wayne is still held in such high regard. The Dark Knight simply would not have worked (as well as it did) had Bale performed at a pitch closer to Heath Ledger’s, and for the actor who played Dickie Eklund in The Fighter, that’s major.
Out of the Furnace is a lot like The Dark Knight, mostly because of the great power Bale is able to conjure through an understated performance, the sort of performance that is often (clearly) overlooked. His scenes with his brother – Rodney, whom he must avenge – and the love of his life – played by Zoe Saldana – who abandons him when he is at his weakest, are heartbreaking to watch. Through just his eyes, and his hands, and sometimes with the twitch of an eyebrow, Bale works wonders. It’s a masterclass in realism.
And so is the film. Out of the Furnace is grim movie, about a very specific place – North Braddock, Pennsylvania – and a very specific time. Like Brad Pitt’s Killing Them Softly (another movie that deserves to be defended, but perhaps another day), videos of Barack Obama’s run up to the 2008 presidential elections play on TVs in the background – in dodgy bars, in bankrupt homes and in temporary office spaces.
But in the Pennsylvania of this movie – so steely, cold and wet, that no wonder the film’s theme song is performed by Eddie Vedder – these videos may as well be reporting elections from a foreign land.
Because Out of the Furnace tells the stories of people at the fringes of society – some of them, like Woody Harrelson’s larger than life ‘villain’ quite literally so. He operates a bare knuckle fighting business up in the mountains where even the cops dare not venture. The fights attracts Rodney (Affleck), a four-tour veteran of the Iraq war unable to adjust to civilian life. He’s the brother of Bale’s character, Russell.
Russell is the sort of man who has the appearance of someone caged in – by his town, by responsibilities, by his family. There is always something simmering underneath the calm (almost deliberately meditative) surface, and when Russell gets sent to prison for accidentally killing a child after a night out drinking, his journey towards redemption begins.
Out of the Furnace, as the title suggests, is a film about the people who live lives with no means of escaping to a better future. They’re born where they will die, doing the jobs their fathers, and their fathers before them have been doing. It is a permanent sentence in purgatory, and Russell, wracked with guilt, absolved of all duty, might have found a way out.
The film lost millions of dollars when it was released - in peak Oscars season - in 2013. None of the cast was nominated for any major award and it did more bad than good in establishing Bale’s stature as a bankable movie star (he still isn’t). But like every movie featured in this series, it deserves to be seen and appreciated with a fresh perspective.