AFI Fest: 'Out of the Furnace' Unveiled, Angling to Find a Way Into Crowded Oscar Race

The star-studded cast of Scott Cooper's film includes Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard and Zoe Saldana.
Left to right: Forest Whitaker, Scott Cooper, Zoe Saldana, Ryan Kavanaugh, Tucker Tooley and Woody Harrelson

Scott's Cooper's Out of the Furnace, Relativity Media's primary 2013 Oscar hopeful, premiered at the 27th AFI Fest on Saturday night.

The film, a smart and stirring drama that features a star-studded cast -- Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker and Zoe Saldana all give first-rate performances -- received a lengthy ovation from the audience at the TCL Chinese Theatre, and deservedly so. But the big question, as I see it, is whether or not Academy members can handle yet another dark and depressing movie in a year that is already jam-packed with them.

Flanked by HarrelsonSaldana, Affleck and Whitaker -- Bale, Dafoe and Shepard were absent due to shooting schedules -- Cooper introduced his sophomore effort (he debuted here three years ago with Crazy Heart) with an emotional message about his journey as a filmmaker.

AFI FEST REVIEW: Out of the Furnace

"I saw my first film in L.A. here 19 years ago -- Pulp Fiction," he said of the Chinese Theatre venue. "With this film, I wanted to make a movie about the human spirit and familial obligation … and working with a cast like this is like driving a Maserati."

Relativity Media CEO Ryan Kavanaugh also kicked of the screening with a quip about its dark material: "We've made sure to have a lot of alcohol at the party afterward. You are going to need a drink."

Out of the Furnace, which Brad Ingelsby and Cooper co-wrote, is set in present-day Braddock, Pa., an old industrial steel mill town that once represented the heart of America but has been driven into decline by globalization and the recession. It is in this community, where people "cling to guns or religion," as President Barack Obama once said, that two brothers (Bale and Affleck), both good men, try to go about their lives but encounter a litany of setbacks that force them to compromise their principles. (Someone said to me after seeing the film, "This makes The Deer Hunter look like Mary Poppins!")

I won't go into greater detail about the plot than that, since a big part of what makes the film so riveting are its constant twists, turns and revelations. But I will say that it is a beautifully made and beautifully acted production that keeps you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. And, having spent some time in Braddock during the making of this film -- on the set and at various local landmarks, including the mill at which Bale's character works -- I can testify to the fact that it nails the look, feel and vibe of this often-overlooked part of America and its inhabitants every bit as much as Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and The Fighter capture Boston and Bostonians.

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The lion's share of credit for this film must be given to Bale, the Oscar-winning actor who quietly gives one of his best performances yet (he has told people that he has never been prouder of a film than he is of this one), and Cooper, a 43-year-old actor (Get Low) turned director. It was Cooper who earned the confidence and commitment not only of Bale and the other actors, but also of a sizable studio (Relativity is distributing and also financed the film) and a ton of big-name producers (including Robbie Brenner, Ron Burkle, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Kavanaugh, Ridley Scott and the late Tony Scott).

Whether the film will manage to score any Oscar nominations remains to be seen. It will have its champions but feels a little too small and too genre to crack the best picture field. Bale's performance is nomination-worthy but he will also be competing in the lead actor race for American Hustle, a higher-profile film. And Cooper and Ingelsby's script, though excellent, is vying for an original screenplay nom in one of the category's deepest years on record. But I'd never say never.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg

Stacey Wilson contributed to this story.