Note: a version of this review was featured in Kitchen Drawer, Volume 6, Issue 3. For more, visit kitchendrawer.net
Director Scott Cooper made an impressive debut with Crazy Heart, which featured an Oscar-winning performance from Jeff Bridges as a long-forgotten country singer attempting to make a comeback. If that melancholy, booze-soaked film was the cinematic equivalent of a classic country song, then Cooper's sophomore feature Out of the Furnace is the equivalent of every downbeat Bruce Springsteen tune ever written.
Our protagonist is Russell Baze (Christian Bale, Batman Begins), an ordinary fella who works at a steel mill in Pennsylvania. His brother is Rodney (Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone), a military veteran who's had a bit of difficulty readjusting to civilian life. When Rodney starts to build up some gambling debts, Russell determines to bail his brother out and help him get his life back on track. Alas, Russell's plan is thwarted by a tragic car accident which lands him in prison. When Russell is finally released, things have gotten even worse: his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana, Avatar) has left him for the local police chief (Forest Whitaker, The Last King of Scotland) and Rodney's gambling debts have gotten so bad that his life may well be in danger. Soon, Russell finds himself locked in a deadly conflict with New Jersey gangster Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, True Detective), whose capacity for violence is only matched by his emotional instability.
That may sound like the set-up for a grim thriller (and indeed, that's exactly how the trailers promoted it), but Out of the Furnace isn't particularly interested in getting pulses racing. This is a grim, moody slice-of-life drama which seeks to examine the difficulties of everyday life for downtrodden working-class Americans and to consider the never-ending cycle of violence in America. Those are ambitious, worthy goals, but Cooper undercuts them by leaning too heavily on clichés and piling on entirely too many tragic plot twists. Yes, real life can be extraordinarily difficult, but the film tosses out one awful tragedy after another until the whole thing finally starts to feel like Murphy's Law: The Movie.
That's a shame, because the entire cast is nothing short of superb. Christian Bale delivers an earthy, low-key performance which is entirely convincing; fully inhabiting this noble-yet-troubled character and working at a level which seems considerably subtler than the movie itself. Casey Affleck earns our sympathy as Bale's impetuous, foolish little brother, and Willem Dafoe brings surprising warmth to the role of a small-time bookie. Zoe Saldana is underused, but delivers some of the film's strongest scenes as Bale's understandably-conflicted former lover, and Sam Shepard brings his usual gravitas to a small supporting role. The best performance comes from Woody Harrelson, who turns the film's villain into a terrifying walking pestilence. Harrelson infuses every scene he appears in with a sense of danger and unpredictability; occasionally shaking up a movie which seems to unfold with the solemn predictability of a Greek tragedy.
Honestly, Out of the Furnace boasts quite a few virtues – an effectively moody score from Dickon Hinchcliffe, strong production design which fully captures the suffocating atmosphere of the world these characters live in, appropriately naturalistic cinematography, anguished Eddie Vedder songs which open and close the movie, a considerable level of thematic ambition – but in the end, the whole thing feels strangely artificial. The closing shot (which I certainly won't spoil) feels less like the powerful closing statement it's clearly attempting to be and more like a desperate stab at profundity. The film is a disappointment, but in a way, I have greater admiration for it than for Cooper's formulaic follow-up Black Mass. Some movies are failures due to the fact that no one involved was willing to take any risks, and others are failures because the filmmakers swung for the fences and missed. This one falls in the latter category.
Out of the Furnace
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 116 minutes
Release Year: 2013