Out of the Furnace (2013) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, language and drug content
Running Time: 116 min.

Cast: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard
Director: Scott Cooper
Screenplay: Scott Cooper, Brad Ingelsby

Review published December 6, 2013

Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises, The Fighter) stars as Russell Baze, a steel mill worker in Braddock, Pennsylvania who finds avoiding trouble difficult when his Iraq War vet brother Rodney (Affleck, Ain't Them Bodies Saints) comes home and gets into debt with the criminal element in town.  When Russell ends up doing a prison stint, he can no longer keep tabs on Rodney, and by the time he gets out, the younger sibling is in for more than he's worth, eventually leading him to have to engage in underground fistfights in order to square some of his debts. Rodney's hard-luck eventually leads him to doing business with a lowlife named DeGroat (Harrelson, Now You See Me), a psychopathic New Jersey drug dealer and fight organizer who no one dares do business with unless all other avenues are exhausted.  To make matters worse for Russell, his father dies while he's in prison and his sweetheart (Saldana, Star Trek Into Darkness) leaves him for the local sheriff (Whitaker, Black Nativity) as the slow burn leads to a boiling over that may result in extreme violence to resolve.

Out of the Furnace is written and directed by Scott Cooper, who made a splash debut with the Academy Award-nominated drama Crazy Heart.  Cooper turns in a truly handsome movie, to say the last, with superior lensing by Masanobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook, The Grey) , which gets right into the actors' faces in order to draw out the seething emotions that reside underneath the surface.  Bale delivers yet another of his growing number of completely different characterizations, each more rich and complex than the last.  Kudos also goes out to Saldana for making the most out of what might have been a throwaway role in lesser hands; scenes between her and Bale smolder with unstated emotion. Affleck shines in a sympathetic role of a man whose zest for life is literally beaten out of him after years of war and strife.  And buried underneath the leads, Willem Dafoe (Odd Thomas, American Dreamz) gives one of his best performances in years as the two-bit bookie with a heart that sometimes gets in the way of his head.

While Out of the Furnace is skillfully directed and powerfully acted by an impressive cast of top-tier thespians, it's a lot of talent working with screenwriting that is mediocre at best, with Cooper reworking a script originally written by Brad Ingelsby (The Dynamiter, The Honeyfields).  The thematic material feels ripe enough, but Cooper's ponderous delivery, especially in the film's second half, leads to a muddled story that perplexes more than it satisfies.  Severe contrivances undermine the more realistic delivery, one involving a cell phone recording that seems too convenient to believe.  Disbelief also creeps in when dealing with Appalachian criminals that are, at once, too crafty for the local law enforcement to handle, yet make so many blatantly stupid mistakes, one can only wonder why their organization didn't implode years before.

The story seems to have something to say about the 2008 blue-collar town environment, the troubled state of returning soldiers, penal institutions, angst at love unresolved, and of family issues in general, but all of these seem unresolved as the film eventually turns into a revenge thriller with a prolonged standoff that languishes until reaching an unsatisfying ending. The Deer Hunter did all of this but with far more success (there is even a scene of deer hunting in this film, as if it weren't cribbing enough).
 
Though I'm giving the film a passing grade for all of the strong elements, I'd be hard-pressed to find many people I would give the film an enthusiastic recommendation to, as it is a dark, bleak, and dismal film that doesn't give enough resolution to all of the tension it builds up in abundance.  The film is compelling up to a point, and while I do think the fantastic acting and fierce direction make it worthwhile, especially in the film's first hour, Out of the Furnace is a powerhouse premise that fizzles instead of sizzles, leading to a conclusion that most will find too ambivalent to wholeheartedly embrace.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo