Tag Archives: Woody Harrelson

Battle in Seattle (2007)

Mainstream films about American political activists are so rare that it’s one of the few genres where it might be possible to see them all in one long weekend. I can only think of a few. There’s The Strawberry Statement, a loose dramatization of the 1968 strike at Columbia University. There’s Zabriskie Point, Michelangelo Antonioni’s very strange English language film set in Southern California. There’s Panther by Mario Van Peebles, Selma by Ava DuVernay, Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X by Spike Lee. That’s about it. So if Battle in Seattle, Stuart Townsend’s depiction of the protests against the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference of 1999 is not a great movie, it’s probably still worth seeing, if only because it’s at the very least a competent movie.

As Battle in Seattle opens, Jay, played by Martin Henderson, and Lou, Michelle Rodriguez, are hundreds of feet above downtown Seattle, setting up the famous banner drop. Democracy, an arrow points in one direct, WTO, another points in the opposite. The film shifts to the headquarters of the Seattle Police, where we learn that Lou “burned down her father’s animal research lab, although she wasn’t formally charged,” and that Jay is an environmentalist whose “brother was killed in the Sequoia Forest demonstration.” We are also introduced to Django, André 3000 from Outkast, and Samantha Clayton, Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter.

We also learn why Battle in Seattle could not have been made after Occupy Wall Street. Stuart Townsend is a competent filmmaker and he’s very sympathetic to the 1999 demonstrations in Seattle, but his politics might best be described as “Chris Hedges 2011.” After the police chief tells us that Lou “has participated in black bloc demonstrations that have turned violent,” the film shifts to Jay conducting a teach in. “We are going to shut these areas down,” he says, referring to all the major intersections in downtown Seattle. He asks a question. “How are we going to do it?” He answers the question himself, “non-violently, and by consensus.” Then Townsend shifts back to police headquarters. “Jay and Lou, are not anarchists, as we first thought,” the police chief says.

I can just hear the collective groan from the anarchist community. That Townsend is making a statement about the ignorance of the police is put to rest by the rest of the film. Pretty much everybody in Battle in Seattle, the liberal, Bill de Blasio like mayor played by Ray Liotta, a World Trade Organization delegate with a thick Slavic accent played by Ivana Miličević, and even a Seattle police officer played by Woody Harrelson, are sympathetic. Harrelson’s cop only beats protesters because he’s stressed out working a double shift as a riot cop, and worried about his pregnant wife, Mad Max Fury Road’s Charlize Theron. A TV reporter played by Connie Nielson, who I kept getting mixed up with Charlize Theron — Do all white women look alike? — has a change of heart and actually joins the protests after getting tear gassed. Townsend depicts almost everybody in Seattle in 1999 as at least a sympathetic liberal caught up in events beyond his or her control. There’s only one exception, the black bloc.

While Lou is described early in Battle in Seattle as being a former member of the black bloc, Townsend seems to consider it as a youthful indiscretion. In 1999, he tells us, there was no crossover between the organizers of the WTO protests and the black block itself. Like Chris Hedges in 2011, he presents the black bloc as a fixed group of protesters, not as a tactic used by many protesters of all ideologies. What’s more, all of the “black bloc anarchists” are depicted as sexist assholes and attention whores. One breaks into a department store and terrorizes the pregnant Charlize Theron. Another gets into a shouting match, then a shoving match, with Jay and Lou. “This isn’t anarchy,” Lou shouts. “We’re the ones getting the press,” he shouts back. It’s all right out of the NY Post or Fox News, and almost comically dated. Everything was going fine, Townsend seems to think, until those damned anarchists came along and ruined it.

Nevertheless, Battle in Seattle is enlightening, not in spite of how it’s so dated, but because of how it’s so dated. Sympathetic police officers, corporate TV “news” reporters who quit their jobs on the spur of the moment and join protests, anarchists who terrorize pregnant women, as ridiculous as it all seems today, it’s what many liberals believed in 2007. Battle in Seattle would be a much different film if someone made it in 2015. During the run up to the election of Barack Obama, it was the nostalgic fantasy of the college educated leftist for the “anti-globalization” movement that got derailed by 9/11. In the wake of the Arab Springs, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter, we all know better. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that some of the things we believe in 2015 won’t seem just as silly in 2022.

Final Note: The best thing about Battle in Seattle might be Outkast’s André 3000 as “Django.” It would have been a much better film had he, not Martin Hendrickson, played the lead. He was not only perfectly credible as an environmental activist, he was smarter than his character, and he knew it. Just watching Django handle a TV “news” reporter’s leading questions is almost a tutorial in how to handle the media. He also gets the best line in the whole movie. “Battle in Seattle?” he says. “That sounds like a monster truck show.”

Out of the Furnace (2013)

In their illustrated novel Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco talk about “economic sacrifice zones.” Camden, New Jersey, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, McDowell County, West Virginia are pockets of poverty and despair so isolated and so cut off from the American mainstream they might as well be somewhere in the Third World. Out of the Furnace, Scott Cooper’s film staring Christian Bale as a Western Pennsylvania steel worker, is a deeply flawed attempt to make a film about this side of the United States.

In spite of some excellent performances by a cast of A-list Hollywood actors, Woody Harrelson, Bale, Sam Shepherd, Willem Defoe, and Casey Affleck, Out of the Furnace is a terrible movie. It’s often laughably anachronistic. It’s dull. It’s violent without having any clear idea about how it feels about the violence it portrays. The excellent Winter’s Bone, which was made for one-tenth the cost, 2 million dollars as opposed to Out of the Furnace’s 20 million dollars, showed us back in 2010 that you could indeed make a successful film about an “economic sacrifice zone.” So what went wrong?

I think Out of the Furnace might have failed precisely because it had an A-list cast and a 20 million dollar budget. Big stars and big budgets restrict a director’s freedom as much as they enable him to make a good film. Here’s what I think happened. While you do of course have every right to make a film about an “economic sacrifice zone,” you don’t have a right to investors, to funding. People won’t put up money for a film they don’t think will make money. Winter’s Bone, which starred Jennifer Lawrence when she was still a relative unknown, slipped through the cracks. It was a low-budget movie with a future mega-star. The Wire is a TV show. But Out of the Furnace, as a relatively big budget, relatively mainstream film had to follow certain conventions.

So how does poverty “make it through the censors,” which, in the United States? It’s rare, of course, for a mainstream film to feature poor, unattractive people. But there are certain formats you can work in if you’re interested in making a film about an economic sacrifice zone. You can make a crime drama. Police procedurals and detective shows are where you see the poor on TV.  You might, of course, argue that for most people people in America, cops are omnipresent. You get stopped and frisked on the way to work. You come home and watch the police respond to the domestic disturbance next door. But you’re not going to show an A-list Hollywood actor getting stopped and frisked or waiting in line for a payday loan at the check cashing store. So you need to dramatize poverty indirectly, circle around it, suggest rather than show outright, leave some room for the central protagonist to become a “hero.”

Out of the Furnace squares the circle by way of a revenge drama. It opens at a drive in. Note above what I said about “anachronistic.” We’re never told where the drive-in is located but we see Woody Harrelson as Harlan DeGroat, who we later learn is one of the Ramapo Valley Indians of Bergen Country, New Jersey, terrorizing his girlfriend. When a man in the next car tries to stop it, DeGroat savagely beats him in the parking-lot. This is not a man, we’re shown, who we really want to run into in a dark alley. Bergen County New Jersey, of course, is by no definition an “economic sacrifice zone,” but the hills above Mahwah, where the Ramapo Mountain Indians live, is an isolated, often misunderstood place. So there you have it. Poverty and isolation is embodied by one irrational, violent criminal. That he’s portrayed by a big star also means he has to be a seriously badass violent, irrational criminal, not just an idiot who shoots his mother for her welfare check or knocks over a convenience store.

The movie then shifts to North Braddock, a decayed industrial city just outside of Pittsburgh, not, strictly speaking, an economic sacrifice zone either, but still run down, a place that has seen better days. We meet Russell Baze, Bale, who works in a local steel mill as a welder. The aesthetics of North Braddock appear to have been lifted whole cloth right out of the Deer Hunter. There is in fact still an operational steel mill in North Braddock, but I doubt it’s a big part of the local economy anymore. I’m not exactly sure what North Braddock looks like these days, but this North Braddock appears to be stuck in a 1970s time warp. Restored muscle cars, dark, grimy working class bars, old men dying next to plastic statutes of the Virgin Mary, there are no desktop computers, no Starbucks, no big box stores or fast food places. A mobile phone will play a key role in the plot, but this is my father’s Western Pennsylvania, not mine. There is some good cinematography in Out of the Furnace. A road trip Russell Baze takes to Mahwah, New Jersey — portrayed by Independence Township Pennsylvania — is simultaneously beautiful and menacing. But, for the most part, Scott Cooper seems to be “sampling” from the Deer Hunter because he’s unsure of how to shoot the current day suburbs of Pittsburgh. Deborah Granik, in Winters Bone, by contrast, not only shows us the authentic Ozark “economic sacrifice zone” of Arkansas and Missouri, she shows so much of it it almost starts to look like a documentary.

We also meet Russell Baze’s younger brother Rodney, an Iraq War veteran who, since he has trouble settling down and getting a job, has gotten mixed up with some local gangsters, the bare-knuckled fight scene, and, ultimately, Harlan DeGroat. Why a local gangster and drug dealer in northern New Jersey is mixed up in a similar scene all the way out in Western Pennsylvania is never quite explained. In spite of Russell’s efforts to save his brother, efforts that include signing over his entire paycheck to pay his debt, Rodney agrees to participate in a bare-knuckled match out in New Jersey, where, in exchange for “taking a dive,” DeGroat agrees to forgive him and John Petty, Defoe, the money they owe. Petty and Rodney drive out to New Jersey. Rodney takes the dive as agreed, but, for some reason never explained, Harlan DeGroat murders them both.

The murder staged in Out of the Furnace, and the apparently lack of motivation, has, in the real world, led to some members of the Ramapo Mountain tribe to bring a law suit against Scott Cooper and the producers of Out of the Furnace. Since DeGroat is a common name among the Ramapo Mountain people and since Harrelson’s character is so irredeemably vicious, they’ve accused the film of being nothing less than a “hate crime.” It is indeed a little baffling as to why Cooper would have an isolated little rural slum in New Jersey play such a large role in a film about Western Pennsylvania but I suspect it has something to do with wanting to address racial tensions in Braddock — which is now 60 percent black — without having to deal with any fallout. Although Cooper casts two fine black actors, Forest Whitaker and Zoe Saldana, in insignificant roles, the racial “other” is played by the white, Anglo Saxon Woody Harrelson as a Ramapo Mountain “Indian.” Cooper jumped out of the frying pan and landed right in the fire.

In any event, while in Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence’s Uncle Teardrop and an associated family of meth cookers embody the poverty, desperation and violence of an “economic sacrifice zone,” in Out of the Furnace, Harrelson does it all by himself. It doesn’t work. While Harrelson certainly knows how to play a violent, depraved criminal, it comes off more like a star turn than anything that speaks to the society of either the Ramapo Mountain People or of Western Pennsylvania. Russell’s revenge, where Bale lures Harrelson back to Braddock on the pretext of collecting a debt, is as implausible as it is dramatically unconvincing. A scary crime lord like DeGroat didn’t have lackeys willing to drive out and collect the money? Nobody’s ever heard of PayPal or money orders? What’s more, it makes no sense that a welder would suddenly transform himself into a badass killing machine. Knowing how to fire a hunting rifle never made anybody Dirty Harry. It would have, in fact, made a lot more sense to have had Rodney, as an Iraq War Vet, avenge Russell, his hard working civilian brother. Surely they teach people how to kill in the army, but, once again, the economics of the film override its dramatic logic. Christian Bale is a bigger star than Casey Affleck, so he had to play the hero.

Indeed, Russell’s transformation into an avenger contrasts poorly with Jennifer Lawrence’s Rhea Dolly. Winter’s Bone is dramatically effective precisely because Rhea has to overcome her terror, precisely because she’s a 17-year-old girl without protection, stuck in an economic sacrifice zone where she and her younger brother and sister are about to lose their house. Winter’s Bone brings us into that economic sacrifice zone because it brings us into the mind of a young woman who understands what it means, but doesn’t fully understand what it means. The film is a learning process. Out of the Furnace, by contrast, is just another macho action flick. It’s not the worst movie ever made, but it’s a criminal waste of talent.

Forget about Out of the Furnace. Watch Winter’s Bone. Read Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Dig your out your old VHS copy of the Deer Hunter, and, if you’re still in the mood, take a drive up to the Ramapo Mountains. I’m 100% sure you won’t get killed.