Can ‘Out of the Furnace’ burn bright at the Oscars?

A few years ago director Scott Cooper ambushed the Oscar derby late in the year with a gritty film that didn’t seem like typical academy fare. “Crazy Heart” featured no stuttering monarchs (“The King’s Speech”) or Hollywood superstars dancing in tuxedoes and gowns (“The Artist“). Instead, “Crazy Heart” showcased a grizzled hillbilly crooner with a drinking problem and a bad attitude – not the kind of guy who gets invited to academy parties at the Chateau Marmont. But “Crazy Heart” pulled off miracles at the derby, sweeping up kudos from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., Critics’ Choice, Golden Globes, SAG and Indie Spirits before landing at the Oscars where it won Best Actor (Jeff Bridges) and song (“The Weary Kind”).

Now Cooper is back in consideration with another dark film about people you won’t find lounging around the pool at the Beverly Hilton – “Out of the Furnace.” They’re good people with bad luck, stuck in a decaying Rust Belt town in Pennsylvania. Christian Bale portrays a steelworker who maintains unflagging decency and goodness even when his dad’s dying, his factory is about to shut down and his girlfriend is pregnant with someone else’s child. His chief worry is his unhinged brother (Casey Affleck), who can’t accept the financial and spiritual woes that greeted him when he returned home from military tour in Iraq. Affleck is hellbent to make a fortune as a bare-knuckled fighter and it is to hell where he’s going and Bale can’t stop him.

Bale gives the best performance of his Oscar-kissed career even though he doesn’t get the big pop-eyed, grandstanding scenes he had in “The Fighter.” Now and then he explodes with rage over the social injustice around him, but he’s most impressive in “Furnace” when he’s burning slowly. That’s when he invites us into his tortured mind and heart and we appreciate the texture of his character. This time Casey Affleck lets his fists fly and does the grandstanding – and it’s a heavyweight performance. Throughout it all, Cooper handles the camera and script so deftly that it feels more like documentary than feature film.

Out of the Furnace” features Oscar-caliber performances by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck in a poignant drama by someone who knows his way around the Oscars: director/writer Scott Cooper. Affleck, let’s recall, is a past Oscar nominee (“Assassination of Jesse James”). So are costars Woody Harrelson (“The Messenger”), Willem Defoe (“Shadow of the Vampire”) and Sam Shepard (“The Right Stuff”). Forest Whitaker is a past Academy Award champ, of course (“Last King of Scotland”). Among “Furnace’s” producers is past nominee Leo DiCaprio (“Blood Diamond,” “The Aviator,” “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”) and editor David Rosenbloom (“The Insider”).

Get the big picture? Yes, this team is very academy friendly. That’s a big plus. However, “Out of the Furnace” doesn’t have major Oscar mojo now. That may simply be because the film isn’t a big-studio release (it’s Relativity, not Warner Bros.), so buzz must build as the movie screens across Hollywood to the guilds and industry crowds. It may be a tough sell, though, despite the film’s obvious merits. The world seen in “Furnace” is not one that academy members aspire to, but it is one that they’ve nominated in the past with movies like “Winter’s Bone,” “The Fighter,” even “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

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