Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Review: "Out of the Furnace"

Director: Scott Cooper
Runtime: 116 minutes

Grim and brutal with absolutely nowhere to go, Out of the Furnace is a revenge drama lacking depth and purpose. Director Scott Cooper's follow up to 2009's Crazy Heart has some admirable performances, especially from leading man Christian Bale, but it has absolutely nothing to say. There may be important issues present, but they're delved into superficially at best.  

Set in the Rust Belt, Out of the Furnace at least looks right for the part. The mix of handheld camera work and grimy visuals are well suited to the failing steel-mill town where the action takes place. But right from the get go, Cooper's story, co-written with Brad Inglesby, feels like a rough sketch of a plot or a rough draft. This story of brothers Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) seems desperate to say something about the hard times ailing places like the Rust Belt (in this case, Braddock, Pennsylvania). Early on, Russell sips a beer in a dimly lit bar, while the 2008 Democratic National Convention airs on TV, promising hope and change to an audience that already seems destined to be forgotten. 

Then there's the matter of Rodney, who's struggling to find work when he's on leave from the Army. Despite a stint in prison, Russell is the "good" brother of the two, always taking care of the house and dutifully going to his job at the steel mill. Rodney, meanwhile, falls in with the wrong crowd when gets roped into illegal fights run by the likes of John Petty (a burnt orange Willem Dafoe) and drug dealer Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Given DeGroat's fiery temper and violent urges, it's hardly a surprise when things go south, and the film switches from would-be character study to a revenge drama. 

Yet Cooper and Inglesby appear to be under the impression that the choice of setting is enough to inform the characters beyond their basic archetypes. They are wrong. Rather than get in the heads of the characters, Out of the Furnace moves dutifully through the motions, just like Bale's Russell. It does what it needs to do to get from point A to point B, and then it's simple done, with no deeper meaning or gravitas to create a sense of purpose. 

The stacked ensemble, unfortunately, isn't able to do much with the painfully basic material. Bale is an effortlessly compelling leading man, and the first half of the film gives him a few chances to really shine. But in the larger picture, none of it adds up to a substantial sum. Affleck is angry, Zoe Saldana cries, Dafoe wears a heinous turtle neck sweater, and Harrelson is foul and creepy, but there's nothing else going on. The supporting ensemble mostly feel like wasted effort, an even bigger shame considering the talent involved on camera. 

To his credit, Bale holds the whole enterprise together as the protagonist, but any sense of intrigue or mystery to his quest for vengeance is dealt away with from the start. We know everything he can possibly learn in his journey, which makes Out of the Furnace a bit of a slog to sit through. There's nothing hugely objectionable about the film, but there's simply nothing there underneath the grimy photography and hardened faces to justify the film's existence. In a way, it's almost hard to call Out of the Furnace "bad," as its biggest crime is simply that it has absolutely nothing going on outside of its most basic components, all of which have been used to better effect in dozens of other films.

Grade: C/C-

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