‘Out of the Furnace’ Review
Instead of embracing any semblance of light and levity left over from his first film, filmmaker Scott Cooper’s highly anticipated follow-up to his 2009 hit ‘Crazy Heart’ goes straight for the darkness, never quite emerging on the other side of it, much to the detriment of both the feature and its audience.
Cooper’s ‘Out of the Furnace’ is a miserable experience, and though that seems to be entirely the point, that doesn’t mean it needs to come with such little redeeming value, at least as it applies to the film’s emotional stakes. The first act runs through a series of ever-increasing bad situations, bad acts, bad decisions, and bad accidents, but it's a lack of emotional investment that keep them from hitting with any sort of impact. It’s just one big stew of bad stuff, and the only interesting thing about it is waiting for everything to inevitably boil over.
Set in a dismal little mill town in the Rust Belt (one that still manages to oddly, occasionally shine thanks to Masanobu Takayanagi’s assured cinematography), ‘Out of the Furnace’ consistently drives home dramatic life lessons – life is hard, mistakes happen, and success is a luxury. Centered on a pair of at-odds brothers, the film chronicles what happens when seemingly like-minded people engage in deeply divergent behavior.
Christian Bale leads the cast as Russell Baze, a roughly handsome (and skinny! Bale goes skinny for this one!) mill worker trying to do his best with continually tough times. Russell is a good man, though not in unique or outstanding ways – he loves his woman (played by Zoe Saldana, who only gets to shine in one scene that requires her to sob like her life depends on it), he works hard at his job, he takes care of his psychologically sick brother and physically ill father - and when that doesn’t prove to be enough, it’s striking, but it leaves little mark.
Opposing Bale’s Russell is Casey Affleck as his younger brother Rodney, a shiftless military man who rejects the kind of life that most Baze men have carried out without comment. Unfortunately, Rodney’s idea of doing something different includes participating in an illegal underground fight ring that’s populated by some of the baddest baddies around, bad enough that even tough-talking Rodney doesn’t stand a chance.
When Rodney goes missing during an out of town fight (his last one, and one that he demanded of local promoter Willem Dafoe, who continually proves that a well-chosen wardrobe and hairstyle are the only things he needs to push a performance into greatness), Russell finds local authorities unwilling to participate in a true investigation, pushing him into action.
See, it’s not just that Rodney got involved with some bad people, it’s that he got involved with the bad person, Woody Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat, a drug-fueled degenerate that has the lock on all those underground fights. We actually meet Harlan before either of the Baze brothers, during the film’s opening scene, a memorable and disturbing drive-in date that only sets the tone of the film to come - dark, uncomfortable, violent – and the type of person Russell will have to eventually come to terms (and blows) with.
Harrelson’s Harlan is an outsized villain, he’s the sort of guy who spouts off lines like, “I got a problem with everybody” and who literally has the words “F---” and “YOU” tattooed on his hands (all the better to hold up to spread the message when spoken words just won’t do), but there is true terror underneath his over-the-top evil. When Bale and Harrelson do finally (finally) engage in their own gritty battle, it’s electric and intense; the sort of tension-filled drama the rest of the film needs much more of. These two can spar with the best of them, but the film’s meandering first acts keep them apart for far too long.
The original script for the film was a well-regarded Blacklist entry penned by Brad Ingelsby that has been beefed up by changes from Cooper himself, yet it’s still the weakest piece of the production. The film is riddled with clichés that detract from the power of its visual beauty and solid performance – the “one last fight” storyline is actually referred to, at one point, as “one last fight” and a ballbuster of a battle takes place amid the apparently essential mill. Russell’s girlfriend even leaves him for, of all people, the town sheriff. That’s got to sting, but it’s also the most thuddingly “dramatic” choice that the script could possibly make.
Cooper’s direction occasionally falls into those same types of written clichés, and he frequently cuts between the very different brothers to illuminate their opposed trajectories – Russell drives to go hunt with their uncle while Rodney similarly speeds off into the woods to hit up a fight, Russell stays at home painting their father’s house while Rodney goes bare knuckle at an underground battle – but the effect is juvenile and basic. We get that the Baze men are different; we don’t need obvious sequences to drive that home.
Affleck and Bale exhibit a comfortable, believable brotherly chemistry as the Baze brothers, and third act tensions give the film some real punch, but ‘Out of the Furnace’ is otherwise a parade of miseries that never knows when to abate or emote.
'Out of the Furnace' opens in theaters nationwide on December 6.