Fate does not look kindly upon the
characters in Out of the Furnace;
that’s clear from the shocking opening scene, in which Woody Harrelson displays
the kind of repellent behavior one might associate with a horror-movie villain.
It’s meant as a portent of things to come for the poor unfortunates in the
story, who are trapped in a dying Pennsylvania steel-mill town. They’ve all
been dealt a bad hand; mill worker Christian Bale who can’t offer Zoe Saldana
the kind of commitment she needs, his loose-cannon brother Casey Affleck who
has a knack for getting in trouble (in between tours of duty in Afghanistan),
even a local racketeer (Willem Dafoe) who tries to protect Affleck from
himself, and the well-meaning local cop (Forest Whitaker).
Nothing good lies in store for any of
them. Director and co-writer Scott Cooper makes it clear that they are doomed
from the start…but he never finds a way to transform his working-class parable
into a meaningful story, beyond its melodramatic set-up and resolution. I felt
a strange arm’s-length distance from these people as they headed toward their
Unfortunately, Cooper and his
hard-working actors wear their noble intentions on their collective sleeve,
which makes the movie even more difficult to embrace. A couple of decades ago,
the same narrative would have been spun as an exploitation film, with liberal
doses of sex and violence. In sharp contrast, Out of the Furnace is fraught with self-importance, insistent on
driving across its message that these people matter. They ought to, but they
don’t…at least, not enough to make the picture successful, as entertainment nor
as a message movie.