In his Academy Award-winning feature debut Crazy Heart, actor-turned-director Scott Cooper found real soul in the cliched story of a haggard country singer who falls into a romance that forces him to reassess his troubled past. Four years later, Cooper returns to tell another tale you may have heard before -- that of a brother seeking revenge for his sibling’s senseless and brutal murder -- but fails to harness its most compelling themes in a way that gives the movie true meaning. This oversight would make Out of the Furnace an easy film to dismiss, had Cooper not managed to elicit some genuinely powerful performances from his talented cast.
The glimmer of a better life always just out of reach, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) dreams of starting a family with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana), and resolves to earn an honest living working in the same mill where his dying father did. Meanwhile, Russell’s volatile younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) decides to serve his country by fighting in Iraq. Despite Russell’s best intentions, however, his future starts to look grim when he is sent to prison following a deadly drunk-driving accident; at the same time, Rodney begins competing in illegal fights for local bar owner John Petty (Willem Dafoe), who owes a sizable debt to the very dangerous Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a fight organizer/meth dealer who’s way too into his own product. Later, after Russell is released from prison having missed his father’s funeral, he is heartbroken to learn that Lena has become seriously involved with the local police chief, Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). But heartache turns to anger when the desperate Rodney also gets mixed up with DeGroat, and winds up dead along with John Petty. Informed by Chief Barnes that Rodney’s body has been found by a hunter, Russell, believing he has nothing to lose, recruits his loyal uncle Red (Sam Shepard) to help him seek revenge.
Out of the Furnace is a positively gorgeous-looking film with top-tier performances by some of the biggest names in cinema. Although it would be easy to overlook the emerging director when praising his cast, Cooper’s ability to work with actors to find the emotional heart of their characters is readily apparent -- especially in a scene that finds Bale torn between despair and happiness during a pivotal conversation with Saldana. Finding the emotional core of this story, however, is a different matter altogether, and in revising the original screenplay by Brad Inglesby (who also receives a writing credit on the film), Cooper seems to stumble; not only are compelling themes like the erosion of the middle class left to rot on the vine, but the riveting dynamic between Russell and Rodney -- both processed and unceremoniously spat out by different systems -- goes virtually nowhere, and the unique tension between Russell and his romantic rival Chief Barnes is ultimately jettisoned in favor of a fairly standard eye-for-an-eye climax. Likewise, despite Out of the Furnace’s heavy theme of family loyalty, Red’s mysterious disappearance as the slow-burn story finally reaches a climax suggests that some crucial aspects of the screenplay were at some point excised.
Yet while Out of the Furnace fails to resonate on a clear and meaningful level, the performances by Bale, Harrelson, Affleck, and Saldana do not. Coming off of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Bale expresses a wide range of powerful emotions with a sincerity that quickly makes us forget the cape and the cowl; Affleck’s damaged veteran offers a haunting reflection of the fate that awaits returning soldiers; Saldana portrays the torn woman with an anguish that’s genuinely affecting; and Harrelson is positively terrifying as the meth-dealing fight organizer whose underworld empire is shielded by the Appalachian code of silence. Even Dafoe, typically a go-to villain, manages to bring out John Petty’s paternal instincts as he attempts to protect young scrapper Rodney -- unfortunately, his refreshingly nuanced characterization only highlights the conflict between the universally strong performances and deeply flawed screenplay, making Out of the Furnace strictly for fans of these gifted actors.
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- Released: 2013
- Rating: R
- Review: In his Academy Award-winning feature debut Crazy Heart, actor-turned-director Scott Cooper found real soul in the cliched story of a haggard country singer who falls into a romance that forces him to reassess his troubled past. Four years later, Cooper ret… (more)