From Scott Cooper, the critically-acclaimed writer/director of 2009’s over-hyped and, let’s be honest, hazily remembered Crazy Heart (Jeff Bridges won an Oscar for playing a country singer who – Shock! Horror! – likes a drink) comes Out Of The Furnace, a dour, gritty tale of family, fate, revenge and life on the margins set in the kind of hardscrabble New Jersey steel town that only notionally exists in the minds and loins of people who listen to waaaaaaaaay too much early Springsteen.

Working a dead-end job in the local steel mill and caring for his terminally ill father, fate deals Russell Baze (Christian Bale) a bum hand when, after paying off the debts of his no-good younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) he crashes his car while just over the limit landing him in prison for drunk driving/manslaughter while soldier Rodney ships overseas for a tour of duty in Iraq.

Returning to their Rust Belt town upon his parole, Russell finds his father has died, his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) has up and married police chief Wesley (Forest Whitaker) and the de-mobbed Rodney is in deep with local loan shark John Petty (Willem Dafoe) and making a living in the brutal, violent underworld of bareknuckle boxing ruled by inbred, meth-fuelled, backwoods gangs.  When John and Rodney mysteriously disappear after a bout arranged by the terrifying, psychotic, hillbilly ‘Godfather’ Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, who else?) and the police fail to crack the case, Russell’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, taking the law (and a pretty big hunting rifle) into his own hands to seek justice for his brother.

Featuring an understated, quietly brilliant performance from Christian Bale (who spends a lot of time staring into the middle distance or at his own reflection), a tremendous, maniacal, barnstorming turn from Woody Harrelson and solid support work from Whitaker, Zaldana, Dafoe and the always wonderful Sam Shepard, Out Of The Furnace sadly never quite equals the sum of its talented parts mainly because its never quite sure what it wants to be.  Is it a dark rural crime drama that’s honest to Jesus nothing like the brilliant Winter’s Bone?  Shhh!  Don’t say nuttin’, no one’s noticed.  Is it about the poverty and lack of opportunity in Pennsylvania steel towns that drives the young into the Army meat grinder where they’re used up, chewed up and spat out into a society that reviles and ignores its veterans?  Well, Cooper’s probably seen Stop-Loss, The Deerhunter and First Blood so that’s a pretty safe bet.  Not to mention Van Damme-starrer Lionheart from where Out Of The Furnace seems to have filched its human cockfight sub-plot.  Is it every song on Springsteen’s 1978 Darkness On The Edge Of Town album but slowed right down and whispered so it means more?  Kinda…

At best a glorified B-movie dressed up in its Sunday church suit, Out Of The Furnace is ponderous and heavy-footed, each clumping moment announcing that we are watching a serious film with something important to say about justice, fate, emasculated blue collar masculinity and THE STATE OF AMERICA!  What it’s saying might be a little muddled but it’s definitely saying it.  See how Bale’s blue collar Joe manfully suffers as fate craps high and hard on him while he tries to keep his head above water.  CHRISTIAN BALE IS AMERICA!  Hear Ivy Leaguer Casey Affleck employ that nasal thing he does when he plays poor, dumb, hicks in order to play a fucktard Army vet who just can’t settle on civvy street. Back there he could fly a gunship! He could drive a tank! He was in charge of million dollar equipment! Back here he can’t even hold a job parking cars! CASEY AFFLECK IS AMERICA! Look, Woody Harrelson is shooting crystal meth between his toes, sucking a lollipop
and beating the snotty piss out of guys in plaid shirts dumb enough to object to him slapping around his own darn girlfriend at the drive-in. WOODY HARRELSON COULDN’T BE MORE AMERICA! And how about Forest Whitaker bagging himself Zoe Saldana? FOREST WHITAKER IS A LUCKY BASTARD! Ok. maybe that one doesn’t quite fit but Out Of The Furnace definitely expects you to take its clichéd story, macho posturing and poverty porn seriously if only because it takes itself sooooooo
seriously. Which makes it impossible to take seriously.

That’s not to say the film isn’t worth watching.  It just lacks clarity, ambition, never quite managing to equate it’s vision of violence and moral decay with America’s economic decay.  It feels both ponderous and rushed, overwrought, its metaphors a bit too obvious – did we really need to juxtapose the deer Bale and Shepherd just killed on their hunting trip with Affleck’s doomed squaddie entering the ring?  Why not just scrawl FRIDGE ME! on his forehead with a marker pen?  Like last year’s The Place Beyond The Pines, another overblown crime drama with pretensions to something deeper, Out Of The Furnace is at its best in its smaller, quieter moments like the quietly devastating scene where Bale’s Russell discovers his ex is pregnant by another man or the taut scene where Bale and Shepard investigate a rural drug den.  But it is a film unbalanced by Woody Harrelson’s terrifying, almost cartoonish, white trash monster.  Harrelson is fantastic, his performance broad, funny, scary and completely committed.  He’s the best thing in the film.  But he’s almost too loud, too colourful for the frame.  Out Of The Furnace, with its stygian steel mills and blue/grey palette is simply too muted to contain him.  Ultimately, Out Of The Furnace is a decent, if derivative, revenge flick stretched too thinly beyond its exploitation DNA by a sophomore filmmaker who’s mistaken moody lighting and liberal use of Pearl Jam for significance.

VERDICT: [rating=3]

About The Author