In Steve McQueen’s artful 12 Years a Slave and Peter Berg’s fraught Lone Survivor (opening soon), the violence is difficult to sit
through, but worth it for those films’ serious drama and wrenching realism. Scott
Cooper’s Out of the Furnace doesn’t
come close to justifying its extreme brutality. This story of two brothers — Christian Bale and Casey Affleck — pushed
to violence in a Pennsylvania steel town is so overwrought that their problems seem
orchestrated by Screenwriting 101 rather than fate. The writers, Cooper and Brad
Ingelsby, may have started with a sincere desire to tell the story of working-class
people crushed by a changing world, but as they pile on the Important Themes, Out of the Furnace quickly becomes more
pretentious than ambitious.
The film begins with its least necessary character: Woody Harrelson as a psychotic drug dealer, Harlan
DeGroat (even his name, like the movie’s title, sounds contrived), who beats up
his date at a drive-in, pretty much on a whim. His shady business dealings take
him to Willem Dafoe, playing the second least necessary character: John Petty,
a small-time loan shark who takes advantage of Rodney Baze (Affleck) — and finally
we’re getting to a main character.
Rodney is a psychologically damaged veteran of the Iraq war,
whom Petty puts in illegal boxing matches. Russell (Bale), Rodney’s more responsible
brother, works diligently in the mill where their now-dying father did, and does
everything he can to bail his brother out of trouble, until an accidental misstep
(another plot contrivance) sends his own life temporarily off course.
Just as he did in The
Machinist, for which he lost more than 60 pounds to play a delusional loner,
here Bale gives a totally dedicated performance in a film that doesn’t deserve
it. Without spoiling the plot, we can still say that Bale is so nuanced and affecting
that your heart truly breaks for Russell, a man trying so, so hard — to be there for his father and his brother and his
girlfriend, to work every day in a mill he knows is likely to close, to walk
into a future with hardly any prospects — who does not get a single break in his
The family story might have been enough, enhanced by Sam
Shepard, who gives an eloquently understated performance as Rodney and
Russell’s uncle. But Cooper won’t settle for anything as weighty and genuine as
post-war trauma and economic collapse. Instead, Rodney gets embroiled with the
madman DeGroat. Harrelson snarls his way through the performance, and has rarely
been so over-the-top or unconvincing. Soon there is more violence, murder and vengeance,
as the film spirals so far out of control that it feels like a blood-soaked vigilante
movie masquerading as a thoughtful indie.
Out of the Furnace
affirms two things we saw in Cooper’s first film, Crazy Heart. He is not exactly original, and quick to borrow from
better movies. Just as Crazy Heart echoes
Tender Mercies (with nothing to
suggest homage), in Out of the Furnace
the damaged vets, mill-town ambience and subdued colors evoke The Deer Hunter. But, as with Bales here
and Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, he can
inspire actors to give him everything.
Too bad that isn’t enough to elevate Out of the Furnace. A substantial film was probably lurking inside this
overloaded, overcalculated mess.