Director Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace follows the release of his 2009 Academy Award winning Crazy Heart. The plot mainly focuses on Russell Baze (Christian Bale) as he attempts to keep his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) out of trouble. Rodney is a disturbed Iraq War veteran who fights in backwoods brawls to pay off his debts to John Petty (Willem Dafoe). After entering a fight ring run by gang leader Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), Rodney goes missing. Russell spends the second act of the movie taking matters into his own hands, hunting down DeGroat.
Out of the Furnace features a sharp cast that consistently delivers great performances. Affleck and Dafoe performed solidly. Even Zoe Saldana-who played the relatively minor role of Russell’s girlfriend Lena-had one phenomenally-acted scene before being tossed into the background.
Harrelson was particularly unnerving as a murderous hillbilly meth-head. Regrettably, his character DeGroat felt like a caricature at times. His introduction, which involved abusing a woman with a hotdog, felt a bit forced and ridiculous.
Despite some stronger performances in the film, the writing for Out of the Furnace rendered the characters predictable and flat. Rather than having any depth, too many of Cooper’s characters seem more like plot devices than actual people. This is especially evident considering it’s nearly impossible to describe many of the characters without spoiling a key element in the plot. Russell’s father, for instance, who has one brief scene to establish that he is terminally ill, never reappears, and later is revealed to be dead through some expositional dialogue. Saldana has one scene with Bale before he ends up in a drunk-driving incident, accidentally killing two people, hence landing his character in prison.
In the next scene they share, Russell has been in prison for an unspecified number of years and Lena is with another man. This is pretty much the entire span of the pointless romantic subplot. It’s hard to feel any emotional impact during dramatic scenes that feature seemingly throwaway characters.
One thing this movie does have going for it is a very distinct atmosphere and consistent tone. Cooper does a fine job establishing the setting and location. There are some intense shots throughout that give the audience a clear sense as to what kind of world they are in-Out of the Furnace is a film that is riddled with poverty, prison life, crack-houses, veterans with PTSD, death, loss, drugs, violence, vigilantism, revenge, and plenty more. It’s probably safe to call this a dark movie.
The film’s dark tone is complemented visually by an appropriate amount of grit. Although some would argue a dying town in the Rust Belt isn’t the most original setting for a drama, it certainly fits the content.
While the first half of the film is not great, it is certainly watchable. The scene in which Rodney goes missing is intense and well executed. Unfortunately, the action/thriller half of Out of the Furnace is when the movie fell apart. It’s hard to elaborate without significant spoilers, but there are some painfully stupid moments in this section.
In one sequence, Russell approaches gang members-who have no idea who he is-and asks them for “candy,” informing them he is “not a cop.” Bale is escorted to the DeGroat’s house, and he repeatedly refuses to sample the drugs he is supposedly buying. He wanders around the house to investigate and is stopped by a gangster who gives him the drugs he forgot to take with him, and pulls it off with virtually no problem. Even a child could recognize how implausible this sounds. Backward logic along with poor pacing eliminated too much of the tension. The climax is predictable and emotionless. The final shot of the film was unclear and didn’t indicate whether that climax had any consequences.
Even with a decidedly generic plot, Out of the Furnace features some great performances, and with its consistency, still could have been an engaging and riveting film. Instead, Scott Cooper delivers a predictable story with lapses in logic and underdeveloped characters, themes, and ideas.