Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson
Genre: Drama/ Thriller
Russell Baze (Bale) and younger brother Rodney (Affleck) live in an economically depressed Pennsylvania town, Russell seemingly happy to struggle on with his basic manual job and live with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) while solider Rodney is more restless and dreams of bigger things. A cruel twist of fate and unfortunate car accident leads to Russell having to go to prison and when released his girlfriend has left him and his brother has just returned from a tour of Iraq more emotionally scarred than ever. Russell is happy to keep his head down and work at the local mill, but Rodney is determined to leave the town and takes up cage fighting and in the process becomes involved with one of the most ruthless local crime rings led to by Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson). It is a decision that will cost Rodney everything and now with the local law enforcement proving useless, Russell is forced to decide to keep his freedom or risk everything to get vengeance for his brother.
It does not exactly sound like the most original plot does it? Of course it is very hard to be original these days, but Scott Cooper’s film is a straight from the 1970s blue collar film, and unashamedly so. The director himself is happy to have the obvious influences discussed, and of course one that has been frequently mentioned is The Deer Hunter. Shot entirely in 35mm, Out of the Furnace has an authentic look of the 1970s and these economically depressed dead end towns that time has simply forgot. The grainy picture of Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography and the bleak urban backdrop of bland industrial buildings combined with Dickon Hinchliffe’s excellent score provide a suitably perfect mood and atmosphere to the narrative.
However for me the narrative is the main problem; we can all marvel at how well a film like Out of the Furnace is made, but I personally needed some substance to go with the style. For a film that takes itself very seriously, the whole story is very contrived and predictable, often relying on tried and tested clichés and caricatures. For example, it is very convenient that Russell’s girlfriend leaves him for the head of police (Forest Whitaker) who is then in charge of the investigation into what has happened to Rodney. Contrivances can be fine if the film offers substance (The Place Beyond the Pines for example), but Out of the Furnace offers very little and though the narrative is always watchable, it never truly grips or engages, while the final third feels a little flat, rushed and too predictable. At the heart of the narrative are potentially some interesting themes with the two brothers being relatable characters of potential depth. However due to an unfortunately average script and Cooper’s desire for creating mood coming at the expense of more detailed storytelling and character development, it predominantly stays at potential which is very much wasted in the end.
Cooper’s masterstroke and without a doubt Out of the Furnace’s saving grace is assembling an A list cast who are all on the top of their game. Though perhaps not convincing as a cage fighter quite so much, Affleck is excellent and sadly for me does not get enough screen time to develop his character further. Harrelson does a very good job with a character who for me was essentially a one dimensional caricature, and Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe (strange hair) and Sam Shepard make the most of their limited screen time. However, without a doubt the film belongs to Christian Bale. His character’s journey may certainly be predicable and contrived, but in every expression and line of dialogue he captures perfectly the pent up angst, repressed aggression and simmering internal disillusionment of a character that is fiercely loyal and devoted to those close to him, emerging as a protagonist of integrity that we truly care about. In the too few scenes they share, Bale and Affleck share a great on screen chemistry and their relationship provides the much needed emotional backbone of the narrative, but again there just should have been more of these scenes and less generic gun battles in the final third. If it was not for these excellent performances that truly elevate the average material, then Out of the Furnace would be a truly forgettable film indeed.
A disappointing case of style over substance and wasted potential that is elevated (and often saved) by excellent performances; Out of the Furnace is often contrived, unoriginal and predictable but thanks mainly to Bale’s committed performance is still a very watchable thriller.