Family and Race Matters: A Review of Out of the Furnace

As an older sibling, I often ruminate about my responsibility to my younger siblings.  I wonder how much I am responsible for rescuing them from  catastrophic situations or whether I have no liability regarding helping them to make the most sagacious decisions.  I know that Cane asked God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Although these concepts are not explicitly stated, they are implicitly discussed in Out of the Furnace, a film directed by Scott Cooper. The film stars Christian Bale ( before gaining 50lbs for American Hustle)  as Russell Baze,  Casey Affleck as Rodney Baze, Woody Harrelson as Harlan DeGroat, Willem Dafoe as John Petty, Forrest Whitaker as Chief Wesley and Zoe Saldana as Lena Taylor, Russel’s love interest.  The film’s title is a metaphor for Iraq and possibly a metaphor for prison. Rodney Baze was discharged from the military after serving his tour of duty in Iraq and Russell Baze was released from prison for serving a sentence for vehicular homicide for driving while intoxicated.  In the opening scene, we are introduced to Harlan DeGroat, the antagonist of the film.  We realize that he is a brute who engages in unconscionable and egregious behavior.  Afterward, we are introduced to Rodney Baze who loses a wager to Petty that costs him over a thousand dollars and that he is unable to pay.  Russell, the protagonist, decides to pay the debt, but wants to conceal that he has made the payment.  Rodney believing that he still owes the debt wants to pay down his debt; thus, he is ready to earn money any way he can so that he is no longer indebted.  Petty vehemently tries to dissuade him from fighting albeit futilely. He is not easily discouraged from fighting such an infamous fighter from North Jersey.  He is adamant about fighting this one fight so that he can pay what he believes to be his debt.  He agrees to fight a notorious violent fighter for money (one of the Ramapo Indians); however, he must lose the fight in order to receive remuneration.  At first he is not in accordance with this arrangement.  He is quickly convinced that this is the best route to take. Rodney leaves a letter for his brother informing him about his plans.  He says that he will return after the fight is over.  He never returns, however.  After the fight, Rodney’s body and Petty’s body are soon found and DeGroat (the leader of the Ramapo) is suspected to be the killer.  Russell spends the rest of the film trying to avenge his brother’s death.  He feels that it is his responsibility to ensure that his brother’s killer is found and simultaneously brought to justice.  In the end, Russell risks his freedom as he kills DeGroat when Russell has every opportunity to retreat.

The pending questions that the film explores are: Why does Russell Baze feel as if he must avenge his brother’s death? Why can he not leave the investigation up to Chief Wesley? Why would he risk losing reconciliation with his former girlfriend, Lena (she left him during his prison stint)? For what singular cause is a man willing to risk losing everything he has? Does one murder justify the killing of another?  Is avenging the death of one’s sibling justifiable?  At the end of the film, one can assume that Russell will end up in the penitentiary unless mitigating circumstances allow for his acquittal. Some of these questions are implicitly answered.  We know that Russell feels that the police chief and the Bergen police lack the courage to challenge DeGroat.  We know that Russell lost the love of his life.  Perhaps he feels as if his life is meaningless without the love of this woman.  The other questions go unanswered.  One can speculate that Russell feels responsible for his younger brother.  We know he exhorted his brother go get a “real” job.  He may feel as if it is his responsibility to protect his brother.  Perhaps, he feels that he did not do enough to protect him In the past.  Maybe he is his brother’s keeper.

Many of the scenes are horrifically intense in order to depict the lawlessness of a particular group of people.  Although the violence is not gratuitous, some of the scenes are difficult to watch.  The opening scene is of high intensity, and it prepares the audience for future scenes.  Woody Harrelson’s character, DeGroat is the most violent.  He is a long way from Woody in “Cheers”.  As an audience member, I hoped that DeGroat would be less violent, but the character was to epitomize a group of people (according to the filmmakers the film is fiction) known for extreme violence, lawlessness, and drug addiction. Profoundly illustrative, the film shows the extent that a brother will go to seek justice for his brother, even if it means incarceration for avenging his murder.

After the film was released, a group of  Native Americans from Ramapo in North Bergen County, New Jersey were outraged. Currently, 17 members of the Ramapough Native American nation are suing the filmmakers for their negative depiction. Furthermore, according to the New York Daily News, some of the least palatable characters in the film have names common to their tribe.  Most of the plaintiffs in the suit, have the last name DeGroat and live in Bergen County or in another area where the action in the film occurs.  They believe that the film is an attempt to portray them in a stereotypical negative way.  As a result of the film, they claim that they have suffered mental anguish, emotional distress, and defamation. They insist that they are not violent people, but people who do not believe in technological advancement and who live in their own community.  They say that any violence in their community is no more prevalent than in others.

As an African American, I know how harmful negative stereotypes are.  No one wants to be inaccurately portrayed.  Although, the filmmakers say that the film is fictitious, there was probably some attempt to sensationalize the film through this extreme portrayal of these Native Americans. Although names are common, I had never heard of this group of Native Americans with the last name DeGroat. It is unfortunate that my first source of information is negative.  In an attempt to dispel the negative stereotype (especially if you see the film), let’s all agree to read about this tribe that is a descendant of the Lenape.

In spite of the negative depiction, I recommend this film for its intensity and captivation.  All of the actors played their roles to the extent that as an audience member I could feel the raw emotion as I often screamed during some of the scenes.  I felt as if I were part of the scenes as they unfolded.  I wonder though, if I would recommend it if the stereotypes negatively depicted blacks.  It’s food for thought.  Comments welcome.

Alexander Paynes’s Nebraska: A Film Review

When the state of Nebraska is mentioned in conversation (almost never actually, except for conversing about a woman I once met and befriended from Nebraska) the discourse is usually about corn fields and football.  One seldom associates the state with major events let alone a film.  In addition, many of us from the NYC metropolitan area may not know many people from Nebraska or may never have visited the state ever.  Currently, the state is on my list of places to see as I become closer to attaining my goal of visiting all 50 states.  After seeing Alexander Paynes’s  comedic – like Nebraska, shot in beautiful black and white with awesome cinematography, one may not be inclined to place it at a high priority for tourism except that some of the people portrayed were the most lovely people.  The movie stars Bruce Dern as Woody Grant, Will Forte as David Grant, June Squibb as Kate Grant, Woody’s wife, Bob Odenkirk as Ross Grant, and an unforgettable appearance by Stacy Keach as Ed Pegram.  Squibb has some classic comedic laughs that have the effect of producing guffaws. Forte and Odenkirk have some memorable scenes that makes one chuckle and smile.

The film is not so much a representation of the state of Nebraska as it is about the representation of the state to Woody Grant, played by Bruce Dern, who won best actor at the Canne Film Festival this year for his portrayal of Grant. The film centers around Woody Grant who believes that he has won a million dollars because he received a letter in the mail alluding to the idea that he may be a winner.  As a result of his mistaken belief, he sets out on a journey from Billings, Montana (A state with natural awesome wonders) with David, one of his sons (his son is aware of his dad’s demented belief) to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his winnings.  On the journey, Woody and David meet family and friends whom they have not seen in years.  In various ways, Woody and David try to reconnect with family and Woody himself meets old friends.  Through all of these encounters, Woody’s son gains a better understanding of his father.  As with most people who have won a prodigious amount of money, news travels through Woody’s hometown about his supposed winnings.  Old family and friends come to collect money that Grant has allegedly owed for many decades.  It’s with all of these former relationships that the feelings and thoughts about the mundane lives of these Nebraskans spring forth.

Throughout the film, there are many comedic lines in the midst of a couple of disheartening scenes.  These comedic scenes interspersed with great cinematography is illustrative of what Nebraska represents to Woody, his wife, and his two sons all of whom join him on his journey for either part of the way or for the entire adventure.  Old memories that once faded into the background are resurfaced.

The final scenes of the film make for a heartwarming dramatic denouement.  This is one of the best endings seen in recent memory. Just maybe reconnecting with an old Nebraskan friend or acquaintance may be a great antidote for whatever ails us.  Make this film a priority.  Do not be fooled by the title.