Out of the Furnace takes a look into the world of small-town Pennsylvania and the connecting world of backwoods Jersey. Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a good man who works hard in the mill, loves his girl Lena (Zoe Saldana), tries to care for his dying father and watch out for his troublesome little brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck).
A tragic accident leaves Russell doing a hard prison stint, only to return home to a changed world. Of all the wilted things in his Russell’s life, nothing is decaying faster than Rodney, whose latest deployment in Afghanistan is breaking him down from the inside out. When Rodney enters the mad world of bare-knuckle brawling, he soon runs afoul of mad hillbilly Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). But when Russell gets wind of Rodney’s peril, big brother ventures into the Jersey hill country to face the devil DeGroat on his own turf.
The sophomore effort of Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper, Out of the Furnace is an odd beast. Heavy on atmosphere, scattered in focus, and populated by interesting and colorful characters that are brought to life by some strong performances (but are never fully explored), the film ultimately feels hollow and distant, but not without merit.
Like with Crazy Heart, Cooper’s direction gets inside the skin of a particular Americana sub-world with gritty authenticity provided by cinematographer Masanobu Takyanagi (Warrior, Babel); Cooper mixes that sense of verisimilitude with often tragically beautiful moments of high-art imagery and iconography. The tone and atmosphere of the film are thick with the menace, violence and despair of a blue-collar jungle (clearly established in the film’s opening segment), and in terms of creating a believable world and set of governing rules and logic, Cooper does accomplish something noteworthy.
The script – co-written by Cooper and relative newcomer Brad Ingelsby – is well-intentioned, but not all that effective in execution. The movie has a set of really interesting and three-dimensional characters (even Harrelson’s psycho villain is deeper than a one-note cliche), but in forming those characters, there is a definite scattering of focus. The film seems to change hands at various points when it comes to the protagonist (it opens with DeGroat, settles on Russell for a time, jumps to Rodney, back to Russell) and deeper themes are raised that ultimately don’t pan out into very much payoff or development.The pacing is a straightforward series of events with little twist or flare; this is a stroll through the dark Americana underbelly and that’s exactly how it unfolds, casually, and with little sense of overall direction or urgency.
It’s the actors who really make the journey worthwhile, led by Christian Bale, who continues to remind us that (now free of a Bat suit) he’s truly one of the best character actors of his day. Bale turns Russell into a tough but compassionate and admirable man – a man who faces some of the hardest hits life has to deliver. Scene-to-scene, it’s almost as if Bale is indulging in just about every kind of powerhouse emoting an actor can be asked to do; grief, horror, heartbreak, anger, joy, longing, fear – it’s a real smorgasbord, but Bale delivers a fantastic performance. Harrelson is just as electric as DeGroat – mad dog villainy anchored in some quirky complexity. From the moment we meet him, DeGroat never fails to conquer whatever scene he’s in.
On the supporting side, Casey Affleck (Gone Baby Gone) is once again a standout, delivering more on Rodney than the film can arguably handle. As a scarred (both literally and figuratively) symbol of modern politics and the military class, Affleck’s character is almost in a movie all his own. Saldana dirties herself up to play a believable hometown girl, and her arc (walking the tightrope between two men’s affections) is handled with rare realism and complexity without being distracting. Thanks to the deficiencies of the script, Forrest Whitaker’s character – just as complex and interesting as the others – could arguably be cut entirely from the proceedings, since his arc builds to nothing but a drop-off. Old vets like Willem DaFoe, Sam Shepard and Tom Bower also show up, to help bolster the edges.
In the end, Out of the Furnace is definitely one of those “mood movies” where style trumps substance. However, it is a well-made and well-acted mood movie – one that makes me never want to move back to my home state of Pennsylvania. That sort of reaction says something about the film’s effect, I guess…
Out of the Furnace is now in theaters. It is 116 minutes long and is Rated R for strong violence, language and drug content.