During the promotional buildup prior to the release of Crazy Heart, I had the chance to catch up with Scott Cooper by phone, and I refuse to call our conversation an “interview” because I hate laying down that professional tag on most of the exchanges I’ve been fortunate enough to have with filmmakers. I come in armed with all of the pertinent information about the film in question and general filmographies, but I don’t have an angle or an agenda at the ready. If possible, I would rather talk and see what emerges, and Cooper was certainly an obliging sort, attuned to the conversational beats as much as the musical cues that informed Crazy Heart. The man’s a storyteller, but like the best of the bunch, the world over, he listens as much, if not more, because he knows that you’re going to say something, maybe, that sticks with him.
What he does (in conversation as well as when he’s at the helm of a project) is much the same as what discriminating audiences appreciate in great performances. Acting and life finds truth when we stopping talk at one another and listen, carefully considering what is said, before responding. If we slow down, we recognize when connections are established. We see it like a snapshot, frozen right before us. We can linger in those moments, find meaning in there.
Watching Out of the Furnace, I was struck by the succession of such moments, and I drifted out of the film in the beginning, back to the idea of the conversation with Cooper. I couldn’t recall a particular topic or phrase; it was more of the sense of the link between us. I snapped back though, back to the film because the vitality of the connections onscreen offered the immediacy lacking in my memory of talking with Cooper.
Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works for two, like a pregnant mother; for himself and the life he imagines he will one day have with Lena (Zoe Saldana) and for his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a stop-lossed veteran who struggles to adjust to civilian life. Rodney lives on instinct, fighting and gambling in order to blind himself to his memories of what he has seen and done as a solider. It is casually dropped in a conversation that Rodney has a good heart, and he does, obviously so. He loves his brother and their dying father (Bingo O’Malley). Rodney visits Russell in prison, after a drunken auto accident lands him behind bars. There is goodness in both of the Baze brothers, a real and tangible bond that deepens beyond any notion of it that was conceived on the page. It is there when Bale and Affleck look into each other, finding a history that belongs to brothers.
It is actually fascinating because at one point, during a prison exchange between the brothers, Affleck, sporting a dark beard, shocked me with the resemblance to his own big brother Ben, that has largely escaped me when considering either of them onscreen. At that moment, I felt a depth in him, the sense that he was actually speaking to Ben and not Bale. And later on, after Russell’s release from prison, when he confronts his younger brother about fighting rather than working an honest job, Rodney explodes, much as you might imagine a headstrong kid brother, rebelling in the face of a lecture from his elder brother. Does Casey butt heads like this with Ben, I wondered.
That hardly matters really. The heart of things laid bare up there comes as a result of what occurs between these performers under the direction of Cooper, and it is plain that Cooper wisely found men like himself, students of story and character who wandered into this dark territory fearlessly.
Speaking of darkness, there is the uncivilized and then there is Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). When we first see him, DeGroat takes offense to the offhand laugh of his drive-in date, forces her to deep-throat a hot dog, and delivers a primal beatdown to a passerby who dares to defend her honor. DeGroat lurks, lies in wait for the chance to live and express himself, as he can, through explosive violence. He tells someone, in truly offhand fashion that “I got a problem with everybody” and plainly he does. He lives to express his problems with others.
DeGroat is the spiritual kin of Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) from Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, although he is far less traveled than Freddie. I defined Quell as an old god resisting the rise of a new world and new gods eager to usurp him. Quell wandered the Earth, seeking to find a place to settle and live out his existence in some form of peace, if this truly was to be the end of his time. DeGroat is angry, but rather than run, he’s defending his turf, his way of life, creating an insular protected oasis, beyond the eye and rule of those on the outside. He is an old god in exile with no seeming desire to engage with the rest of the world.
But Rodney, with his fierce warrior spirit, the soldier sent repeatedly into foreign lands, wanders into DeGroat’s lair, which will set up the inevitable battle of wills between DeGroat and Russell. So much of film today sets up a cartoonish clash between good and evil with “super” heroes who lack any real trace of humanity. Yet, Russell and DeGroat are the real deal. Flesh and blood, men with stubborn wills that resemble the myths of masculinity that we once held dear and aspired to.
In the end, I would argue that Cooper, with Out of the Furnace, crafted the kind of story that Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott thought they had with The Counselor, but Cooper did it without the artifice of recited lines. He speaks to us, daring us to listen, and then respond in kind.