The Great Scenes: Bridge Breakup from ‘OUT OF THE FURNACE’

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The Movie: Out of the Furnace (2013)

Spoiler Level: Moderate

The Setup: Following a fatal accident that sent him to prison, Pennsylvania steel mill worker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) returns home to where his veteran younger brother Rodney is struggling with a gambling problem, his ill father has passed away and his former girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) has left him for the small town police chief. After getting his job back at the mill, which is likely to close soon, Russell visits Lena during her work hours on a school playground, hoping to convince her to resume their relationship and make things work between them. Lena then hits him with the bombshell that she is, in fact, pregnant with another man’s child.

Why It’s Great: So this plot device paves the way for pure melodrama where that piece of soul-crushing information can cause actors to soak up all the cheesy potential it brings. Instead, director Scott Cooper lets talented performers like Bale and Saldana play it like human beings might in a real-life conversation. We the audience already like both characters and started rooting for them the moment we saw them, happy together in a bedroom as they started their day. Sadly, the trajectory of a good man like Russell and his family’s life does not permit such good fortune, and he must find it elsewhere, which makes this moment that much worse.

The primary story of this film doesn’t exactly let you get wrapped up in a romantic subplot, but Russell and Lena’s tension give an otherwise slightly flat experience the depth it really deserves and, in this case, earns.

Russell is a tragic figure. So many bad things happen in his life, most of them not his fault. Loss of family, job and in this case, his romantic relationship and consistent source of happiness. But somehow he manages to keep his chin up and do everything he can to help anyone but himself.

While still a good film, “Out of the Furnace” had much more potential than it actually realized, in its attention to character, honesty and small town living. But as Russell and Lena walk to the top of a bridge moments after he sees this woman he loves in person for the first time in years, it takes on a new identity.

As he tries to persuade Lena to give their relationship one more shot, you see her eyes and body brace for what’s next. The moment he tries, it’s over, and her hands touch his shoulders to ease the blow as she then says, “I’m pregnant.”

He goes stone-faced, and this is where it could have easily gone off the rails. Instead, Cooper lets the scene breathe, and the characters share a moment of grace, a trait rarely explored and executed in similarly conceived scenes.

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Russell takes the news extremely hard, and Lena feels about as bad about sharing it. But he does not overreact one way or the other. Typically, movies might force an angrier emotional response, one of judgment or resentment towards a character’s female counterpart. Russell chooses humility. He accepts it and, somehow, wishes her happiness even if it means finally letting go of the most meaningful part of his otherwise imperfect life.

Cooper wisely opts for natural sound, just whirring wind and passing traffic, as the two share one of the more powerful breakup scenes in recent memory.

Plenty of good or even bad films have great scenes. “Out of the Furnace” has only a few memorable ones, this one shining brightest among them. But despite its shortcomings, moments like this did help forge a character worthy of further exploration in Bale’s Russell Baze.

Today, Bale acts when he wants to thanks to the box office success of his Batman trilogy, an Oscar win and a string of other critically acclaimed performances. In the late 2000s, he became somewhat of a punchline following  his on-set freak-out during production of “Terminator: Salvation,” losing some of his audience and influencing others to take him a little less seriously than they had after “American Psycho” and other noticeable works.

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Bale can certainly go big, as he did in his Oscar-winning turn in David O. Russell’s “The Fighter,” but in Cooper’s film, he thankfully chooses subtlety for a strong but often silent character that desperately requires it.

Cooper’s sophomore effort, following the highly praised “Crazy Heart,” earned him the “sophomore slump” status in the eyes of many. But for me, he directed his best scene yet in one of the more tender, tragic and real moments between a once-blissfully happy couple I’ve actually ever seen on screen, a beautiful piece of acting between Bale and Saldana.

Watch it below: