There’s a difference between films showing the problems in our society, and actually getting a message across. In spite of its breathtakingly sincere depiction of worn-down American lives, “Out of the Furnace,” written and directed by Scott Cooper, ends up being a highly predictable, fatalist revenge story. One that is only held together only by extraordinary actors do- ing the best they can with mediocre characters.
Taking place over several years, “Out of the Furnace” chronicles the life of blue-collar work- er Russell Baze (Christian Bale) in the dead-end town of Braddock, Pennsylvania. When he’s not working at the steel mill, or doing hard time for a bad-luck crime, he’s mourning over the loss of his true love (Zoe Saldana). That is, when he’s not rescuing his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a bitter war veteran who’s got a bad temper and most likely a case of PTSD. Not to mention Rodney’s gambling problems and a large debt owed to the local loan-shark, Petty (Willem Dafoe).
Rodney finds himself drawn into the bare- knuckle fighting scene where the money is little, but the pain is reliably dulling. Unfortunately, he’s too proud to give up the fight when there’s a bet on the line, getting himself even further in debt. Chasing big money, he coerces Petty into getting him in with the high-stakes fighting in New Jersey. This also means entangling himself in the dealings of the notorious drug lord and fight promoter, Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). “One last fight” ends up being a poor decision that ties basically every character in an endless cycle of revenge that’s like a wheel stuck in the mud — it moves fast, kicks up a lot of muck and doesn’t really go anywhere.
Let’s start positive: Cooper deserves some credit, visually. He’s in his element with the lucidly colorless environment of the town, and fosters a sense of a place isolated from the rest of the world. But there’s no amount of smoke or grit that can turn the thinly disguised working- class cliches into a bleeding-heart allegory of economic hopelessness and obsoletion.
The film limps along, distracted by smoke-filled sunsets and pale silhouettes. It tries to shock us with cross-cut editing between mo- ments — the gutting of a freshly-killed deer beside human brutality; the making of steel alongside the cooking of heroin — that should work, but with characters so underdeveloped, they are unable to resonate. It’s a fine line, and unfortunately, only works when the human be- ing is a richer character than the deer.
Clearly aiming for the 1970’s grit of the film “The Deer Hunter,” “Out of the Furnace” in-stead feels as lost as its cliched and emotionally-constipated main character. Characters like Russell and DeGroat are written with garden-variety, one-dimensional laziness that gives the characters an overall effect of being placeholders in a painfully generic story.
Elements that should gracefully pull us into the correct time frame — the War on Terror, the depression of 2008 and the rise of Obama — are slapped onto this story like bumper stickers.
You certainly can’t deny the passion of the cast in this film. A cast that gives performances that belong in a less ambiguous, deeper film. Christian Bale is known for playing closed-off characters, and Russell is no exception. He brings to the role a captivating stillness, both saving and complementing the written character of a man who constantly strives to do right, but suffers the blows of fate time and time again.
Woody Harrelson is the best villain you can find, giving an amazing, almost feral performance as DeGroat. He clearly bulked up for the role, mak- ing his size effectively terrifying, to say the least. Casey Affleck is truly one of the most original actors in American film. His high voice and lanky body contrast his macho character in a great way. The volatile vulnerability he brings to his confessions of what he’s seen in the war give us hints as to what this movie could have been if it knew its purpose.
Zoe Saldana, though perpetually in generic girlfriend mode, brings out a powerfully frag- ile Bale in their reunion. Even other small roles played by the likes of Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard may be incredibly one-note, but are performed earnestly.
Clearly “Out of the Furnace” was made with the noblest of intentions, but we all know what furnace these intentions tend to lead to. And, un-fortunately, this film loses itself in its attempts to imitate gritty art-house drama, and ultimately suffers the harsh blows of poor writing and predictability.