August: Osage County (2014) & Out Of The Furnace (2014)
I can’t be the only person whose entire opinion of a specific film can sour over such a simple thing such as a solitary, final shot? C’mon now, lets hear from those amongst us who for the proceeding two hours have inexorably been pulled into the lives of these two-dimensional human beings up on the silver screen, forging some unconscious empathy with them through the medium of a conflagration of elements such as performances, lighting, music and editing to name just a few, how have thrilled and marvelled at their adventures and activities in the shared dark experience with total strangers only to be obliterated by a final image which for some reason jerks out of that mental space and shatters much which has gone before? OK, I’m exaggerating a little but this was my dual experience after digesting two American films over the weekend, the Oscar pricking August Osage County and gloomy working class drama Out Of The Furnace. Both films are similar in other respects, they are both contemporary American drama’s with largely unsympathetic and difficult characters, both put you through the grinder of physical and emotional violence to get to their conclusions, and they both feature American wordsmith Sam Shepard hence my coupling of this review for the sake of brevity as I’m already another BFI review behind (with more films thundering over the horizon this week. But they also and both lost a half star (if we’re going to follow that shorthand film criticism standard) purely on how they visually concluded their stories, I’m not necessarily referring to how the plot or character’s lives and fates are concluded, I’m not speaking from a narrative technique perspective, what I’m driving it is how visually and tonally a film gracefully exits from that shared unconscious experience which for me is critical as it is the final mouthful of the dish which remains in the palette during digestion, if you’ll forgive me for stretching my cuisine metaphors to such celluloid contortions. Now just to be clear I’ll avoid spoilers of course so don’t fret if Meryl Streep’s actually rather good performance is tempting you out to the auditorium prior to awards night, or if you liked The Place Beyond The Pines then this years similar re-tread of similarly attuned material might convince you to punch this down on the rather limited London release pattern its been burdened with, but before then we need to mournfully attend a prairie baked funeral….
Based on the play by current Hollywood hot ticket scribe Tracy Letts let me introduce you to the deeply dysfunctional Weston family, the shuttered family home baking during an ungodly August Oklahoman heat. After a context setting introduction to the film’s mileau through silent witness proxy Misty (Johanna Monevata) is a nurse hired by alcoholic poet-patriarch Beverley (Sam Shepard), he finishing the interview by quoting T.S Eliot in a melancholy fugue. Soon we learn that he has fled the nest, prompting mouth cancer suffering & pill polling matriarch Violet (Meryl Streep) to entreat her serrated family for aid. Her three daughters are trembiling in successive stages of misery present and future; Barbara (Julia Roberts) is wallowing in the pits of an adultery striken marriage with husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), their separation increasingly strained by the moody behaviour of their young daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin). Flighty, head-in-the-clouds middle sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) has just got engaged to Ferrari sporting business jerk Steve (Dermot Mulroney), a weed puffing dunce who clearly has a loose grasp of respectable boundaries with other family members. Waning young sister Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) never got out and has remained chained to the family home, having never found her soul mate a recent illicit liaison may finally provide a chink of hope for the future. Other family members such as Aunt Mae (Margo Martindale), her husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their wayward son ‘Little’ Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) complete the portrait of dysfunctional distress, so when some suspected terrible news is finally realised the stage is set for a final reckoning of unresolved conflicts, substance abuse powered mayhem and the excavation of deeply drowned family secrets…..
The film has all the bells and whistles of an Oscar clamouring campaign and I must admit I went into this with some pretty strong reservations following that shrill trailer, but I have to say as an instant fan of writer Tracy Letts (he also penned 2011’s Killer Joe) I found this more emotionally resonant and charmingly performed than was anticipated, occasionally peaking with a great scene, the sum not always equalling the strength of the parts. The first port of call is obviously Streep and her grandiose, drawl of a performance, it’s actually less irritating than the trailer suggests and has a pound of pathos pulsing under that witch friendly wig, soundtracked to the chime of her twitching finger nail talons and smokers cough cruelty. For me the real revelations was Roberts as a similarly granite hellion, whilst her heart is in the right place her methods are destructive, she resigningly realising that she is transforming into her mother with a cruel and unavoidable destiny. Due to the subject matter it’s quite theatrical in construction with some corrosive scenes but little in the way of cinematic scope, all the characters receiving a singular pay-off seems a little forced, but it has some incredibly powerful moments and gasp inducing revelations so I for one was quickly sucked into the distorted dysfunction of the family from hell. If I can be so crass it’s an Americanized Mike Leigh picture, full of broad performances which shriek for attention in the sticky Oklahoma heat (although suggesting this cinematically rather than repeatedly having characters whine that ‘it’s so hot’ wouldn’t have gone amiss) , whilst Letts displays his uncompromising cruelty in grinding characters into the dust with waves of misery and maudlin regret, yet life goes on and a sense of slip optimism struggles against the setting sun. Benedict Cumberbatch whom we know can be quite the presence is horrendously miscast as a incompetent self confessed loser, and as I said closing the film on what can only be described as one of the most clichéd vistas in American cinema – the highway stretching ahead into the heat shimmering distance, presumably some visual motif of life’s great voyage and the possibilities ahead – would be less of a problem if it didn’t subsequently dissolve into a horrendously maudlin police artist sketch montage of the main characters, all accompanied by a bloody Kings Of Leon track – I don’t know about mouth cancer but this gave me…well….you can do the rest…….
Speaking of misery we now turn to Out Of The Furnace, director Scott Cooper’s follow-up to the Oscar performance crooning Crazy Heart. This time we’re in an Autumn choked Pennsylvania where the reserved Russell Baze (a brooding Christian Bale) dutifully executes his duties at the local steel mill, watching over the sad decline of his terminally ill father Rodney and the psuedo-criminal activities of his Iraq service veteran younger brother Rodney Junior played by a grimly seditious Casey Affleck. Haunted by his experiences overseas Junior is being sucked deeper into the furtive world of bare-knuckle boxing through the patronage of local barkeeper John Petty (Willem Dafoe), his meagre winnings never enabling him to get out from under an overpowering avalanche of debt and regret. When their father dies Russell is is in jail after perpetuating a horrific drink driving related manslaughter charge, serving his time quietly and turning to the Lord for some small sense of redemption. Immune from his controlling presence his brother sucked into the orbit of the menacing Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a redneck criminal kingpin from the old-blood communities up in the mountains where even the police fear to tread, forcing Rodney to throw one last fight in order to repay both his and John’s sizeable debt. As you may imagine events do not go to plan, and a biblical reckoning is soon on the agenda….
Like Crazy Heart the film has a fine attention to detail to the American underclass, the forgotten stripmalls and exhausted bars, of the decaying communities that squat between the coasts. If you’re fond of that old-school gritty and bleak style of cinema, of crime films where antiheroes merge with heroes on the margins of society then this is worth a flutter. With that bleached emulsion veneer so favoured by many contemporary American filmmakers the film is also shot with that hand-held emotional intimacy, it works and pulls you into the sad and struggling social order of thwarted ambition and seething indiscriminate rage, an American scream if you will. It’s interesting to see Iraq and the Afghanistan abattoirs being woven incrementally into cinema as plausible back-stories and contexts for characters, not being what the film is ostentatiously about but provoking the spark for the rage and disillulsion of main characters, as the chickens finally flock home to roost in the heartland. The film also has a major boon in the form of Woody Harrelson’s frankly terrifying redneck psychopath, personally speaking it’s very rare for an actor to really get under your skin and convince you that you really don’t want to spend any time within several hundred miles of this individual, but from the opening pummelling of his girlfriend and an unfortunately inquisitive bystander he’s one truly revolting muthafucker. The other crucial element is the evident and plausible affection generated between Affleck & Bale, it’s genuine and critical as the main propeller of the films plunging trajectory, conjured through a couple of quietly judged performances. If this film was made in the 1970’s it would feature Charley Bronson or Lee Marvin as villain or hero such is the interchangeable relations and the moral uncertainty of the films architecture, so again I think a tense final sequence should have punctuated with truly memorable metaphor rather than the grasping coda which we saw. Still, with a biblical wrath burning like the steel mills core Out Of The Furnace mutters than an eye for an eye is a mantra which leaves the whole world morally and spiritually blind.