Review: 'Out of the Furnace' Filled with Thin, Spotlessly Acted Revenge
by Jeremy Kirk
December 6, 2013
As the title suggests, Out of the Furnace isn't exactly full of happiness and rainbows. Scott Cooper injects his film with all the grit and dirt the writer/director can muster, a general sweep of grey cast over the proceedings of his story. That story is long-winded yet short on substance, but the filmmaker follows his debut, Crazy Heat, with similar atmosphere and some outright commanding performances that could easily slide in next to the best of the year. Led by The Dark Knight Trilogy star Christian Bale, the cast works its magic under Cooper's direction, and though Out of the Furnace itself becomes something of a bleak but beautiful slog to get through, it is the sum total of those performances that makes it worthwhile. Read on!
Set in a bucolic, Pennsylvania, mining town, the film stars Bale as Russell Baze, a hardworking steel mill worker who is trying to scrape together enough to get by in his lower-class community. Any extra money Russell makes goes towards helping his younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), pay back the massive amounts of gambling debt he's racked up. Matters become exponentially worse - and that "Furnace" of the title comes into play - when an accidental car crash sends Russell to jail.
All that comes once your "out of the furnace" in the classic phrase is just waiting on Russell once he's actually released. His father has passed away. The girlfriend he was falling in love with (Zoe Saldana) has moved on and started a new life. But worst of all, Rodney, an Iraq War vet who absolutely refuses to follow his father and brother into the steel mill, has fallen deeper and more dangerously into debt, now paying off those debts by contending in underground fights. And just as Russell is beginning his life anew, another rug is about to be pulled out from under him, and his life finds itself on a course for revenge.
Out of the Furnace is another case of a slow burn that simply doesn't have enough weight behind its story to justify the pace. Cooper's film, on which he takes a co-writing credit with Brad Ingelsby, crawls from scene to formulaic scene, some of them adding little-to-nothing to the overall story. Any commentary he's making about the current state of things - or current as of 2008 when the film begins - is left in a trivial glimpse of the 2008 Presidential Election. Last year's Killing Them Softly, though clearly more heavy-handed in the matter, got its point across just the same. Though characters in both of these films find a hopeless weight on their shoulders out of a matter of a couple thousand dollars, the general tension of economic strain is less developed here.
The lack of depth in the story, however, becomes hidden in Out of the Furnace once behind the vision Cooper has laid out for it. With cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, he creates stark visuals, drenched in impactful color even if that color is usually some variation on brown or grey. Yet, in every dirt-stained article of clothing or through every dust-covered windshield, the dangerous world Cooper is creating for Out of the Furnace is undeniable. It's style over substance, even if that style is more subtle than the term usually suggests.
It is where Out of the Furnace hides its shallowness for a second time that the film garners its most worthy admirations, the acting. It's no secret the actors involved in this film are gifted, but Cooper, who did such a magnificent job directing Jeff Bridges in one of his best performances, finds new ways in making his actors' performances shine through. Bale has always been able to flip emotions on a dime, and the range he puts in here is another stunning example of precisely what he can do. Affleck and Saldana add multiple notes to their underdeveloped roles, and Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker add a tinge of eccentric flavor.
Most engaging of all, however, is Woody Harrelson as the scummy and psychotic head of a New Jersey crime ring. Cooper establishes his character's intimidation very early in the film, and the actor charges every scene he is in with as much fire and intensity as the gritty film requires. Harrelson never goes off the rails with this character, and his ability to control that fire he brings with him makes the character all the more engaging. "I guess I got a problem with everybody," he says at one point, and though the line is stilted in its all-encompassing evilness, the actor nails it with spine-chilling effect.
It's too bad that same phrase can't be used for Out of the Furnace on the whole. It's not a meandering film, nor does it devolve into tedium at any point. Cooper keeps you engaged in the events these characters are to go through, but the story those events make up is far too thin. The thriller is never gripping, but the drama transcends due to atmosphere and spot-on performances. Out of the Furnace is a film that will be remembered by its and little else. It's enough to make you wonder if even the acting is justified.
Jeremy's Rating: 7 out of 10
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