Out of the Furnace
dir. Scott Cooper
Release Date: Dec 06, 13
Ever since Winter’s Bone eloquently foregrounded middle America’s burgeoning meth epidemic only three years ago, pop culture has embraced this new wave of backwoods terror with highly mixed results. Though Breaking Bad will likely be one of the definitive statements on the meth business, if one not always specifically about that business, too many other entries have reduced the tragic mixture of industrial-economic downturn and youthful malaise that typically engenders a drug’s rapid spread to sleazy window dressing. Out of the Furnace, Scott Cooper’s follow-up to Crazy Heart, distressingly falls into the latter category, despite repeatedly putting on airs that it’s doing something far more profound than a fairly standard B-movie with a host of A-list actors.
That said, it’s a testament to those A-list actors that the film works at all. Christian Bale turns in characteristically excellent work as Russell Baze, a hard-working Rust Belt native who pulls enough double shifts to get by, but not enough to leave or even to give his loving girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) the child she wants. He’s too busy tending both to his ailing father and to his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a sensitive boy in a young man’s body who’s been scarred by his repeated Iraq tours. Until the film is rendered beholden to plot from the end of the first act forward, there’s an easy chemistry between Bale and Affleck that tells a lot of story without bluntly laying out the stakes in the broadest possible terms, a problem that Out of the Furnace struggles with early and often.
After Bale makes a tragic mistake that lands him in prison for some time, he returns to Braddock, PA to find that things have changed. His girlfriend has taken up with a local police captain (Forest Whitaker), while Rodney’s relationship with a local bookie (Willem Dafoe) has escalated into a career in underground prizefighting. Rodney ends up taking a fight held by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a feral meth head and mountain-chain crime boss whose broadly drawn, borderline-caricature tendencies are given a palpable sense of terror by Harrelson. Though Rodney does well, it’s not enough to save him from DeGroat’s clutches, and from there Out of the Furnace leaves its most interesting traits behind in order to allow Bale to go into sensitive Charles Bronson mode in pursuit of his wayward brother.
Bale’s work is so nuanced as an ex-con trying to repair the pieces of his life he abruptly left behind that he’s better than Cooper’s film as a whole, and seemingly the only actor in the film who was told that understatement is a virtue. (Saldana comes second closest, but virtually disappears from the film for much of the running time.) Dafoe and Whitaker are virtually wasted in small roles, and while Affleck is one of the better exploders in modern cinema this side of Michael Shannon, he’s asked to do little that he hasn’t done before (and better) in other films. Harrelson makes for an appropriate terror, but DeGroat is less a man than a meth-huffing nightmare that Cooper can dial up for maximum audience empathy. It’s no fault of the performer, but rather of Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby’s script, one that tries to work in far more than it’s often able to handle.
Part of the issue with the script, and arguably the most damaging to the film, is the way in which nothing particularly connects. The dusty stillness of Braddock, the isolation of prison, and the terrors of the Appalachian Trail are all mined for maximum resonance, but ultimately in the service of very little. Cooper and Inglesby seem more interested in finding really interesting locations in which to stage what by the end turns out to be no more than a pretty standard revenge/morality tale, with a quasi-ambiguous ending that doesn’t really say anything about the kind of man that Russell Baze is, even as it plays at containing multitudes. And then Pearl Jam plays, and we all go home having learned some lessons about manhood, or something.