Out of the Furnace

By on December 8, 2013
out of the furnace

The follow-up to acclaimed director Scott Cooper’s Oscar winning “Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace” is one of the most anticipated films of the holiday season, at least from a critical standpoint. The cast alone is an attention-getter, including the likes of Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard and Zoe Saldana. In short, it all but screams Oscar bait.

The story revolves around a close-knit family living in the Northeastern US, aka The Rust Belt. The oldest son, Russell (Christian Bale) works in a steel mill, while the youngest, Rodney (Casey Affleck), is a war vet. They also care for their elderly, bed-ridden father (the excellently-named Bingo O’Malley). Between their father’s medical expenses and Rodney’s gambling habits and lack of a work ethic, every day is a struggle to make ends meet, made worse when an unexpected incident lands Russell in jail.

By the time he’s out of jail, much has changed. His father has passed on, his girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana) has moved on with a local police chief, Wesley (Forest Whitaker), and his brother is in more debt than ever. Struggling to get back into the swing of things as it is, things take a turn for the even worse when Rodney runs afoul of the thug Harlan (Woody Harrelson), who runs drugs and a local fighting ring, which Rodney agrees to take a dive in, in order to make good on a debt he owes to local bookie John (Willem Dafoe), who in turn owes Harlan. When the two turn up missing, Russell has to decide whether to let the cops do their job or to take the law into his own hands.

If you’ve seen the trailer, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which of those options he chooses. However, what is surprising is how what looks like a standard revenge-thriller that someone like Jason Statham would be in (actually, he is, and currently, in “Homefront”) is played in such a low-key way. The trailer makes it look fairly action-packed and intense, but it’s really not that kind of movie.

Actually, “Out of the Furnace” is more of a character study with mild bursts of action, not unlike this year’s “The Place Beyond the Pines,” only not quite as good. Where that film had some unexpected developments and a unique structure, this film is much more straight-forward and methodically paced, not unlike Cooper’s previous feature, “Crazy Heart.” Only where that film was built around a truly compelling character played by the Oscar-winning Jeff Bridges, this film’s main protagonist just isn’t as compelling, despite the part being expressly written with Bale in mind.

Don’t get me wrong, Bale is solid as always, and does the best he can with the material at hand. It’s just that the story isn’t anything we haven’t seen a billion times before. And with the director determined to keep things at an even keel, the picture just doesn’t have any real forward momentum, with even the ending showdown between Bale and Harrelson’s respective characters oddly muted. As a result, the film feels anti-climatic and with that slow pace, a bit of a slog, despite good work, acting-wise, from everyone involved.

Director Cooper was an actor himself before making the switch over to directing, so working well with actors is something he knows how to do and does well. His visual sense is likewise beautiful to watch, with even the most run-down of derelict homes or rustic sorts of scenery given an eye-catching quality. Big props to cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, of “Silver Linings Playbook” fame, for finding the beauty in all of the ugliness. Unfortunately, without any sense of real urgency throughout the film, it just plays as a visually-interesting travelogue with solid acting, and not much else.

“Pines” was quite similar in these aspects, but was rescued from banality by an interesting, unpredictable storyline, with some genuine twists. Nothing much in “Furnace” is hard to predict, beyond the accident Bale’s character gets in, and that’s pretty early on, and that’s a problem. If you’re a fan of any of the aforementioned actors, you might want to see it for completionist’s sake, but every one of them has done better, more vital work elsewhere.

As for Cooper, I’ve no doubt he has bigger and better things ahead of him. It’s only his second feature, after all, and his first won several Oscars, so we’ll chalk this one up to the dreaded sophomore slump, and call it a draw. I wanted to like “Out of the Furnace” more than I actually did, and as such, I can only give it a kind B- at best. It’s not a terrible film; it’s just a motionless one. Much like the many patches of landscape that drift by its frames, it’s a beautiful thing to look at sometimes, but it’s all surface, no fire. Maybe this one should have been left in the furnace a little longer.

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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