Almost every moment in Out of the Furnace — a brooding working-class drama steeped in Rust Belt realism — seems amplified in what feels like a strained search for meaning.
Boasting a terrific bad-ass performance by Woody Harrelson, the movie nonetheless seems an ultimately failed attempt to give pulpy material a socially significant boost. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) tries for thematic elevation by garnishing a revenge-oriented drama with woes created by diminished economic opportunity and the psychological suffering of Iraqi war veterans.
Cooper (Crazy Heart) builds his generally grim movie around an intense performance by Christian Bale, who plays Russell Baze, a Pennsylvania steel mill worker and the older brother of Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck), a troubled veteran of four tours in Iraq.
R for strong violence, language and drug content
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Credited to Brad Ingelsby and Cooper, the screenplay piles on plenty of complications.
Principal among these twists: Russell winds up in prison after a fatal car accident. He was drinking.
Meanwhile, Rodney pleads with a local bookmaker (Willem Dafoe) to arrange a big-money, bare-knuckle fight for him in New Jersey.
As it turns out, the Jersey bare-knuckle scene and a variety of other criminal activities are presided over by Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat, a character cast in the fires of unapologetic evil.
But wait ... there’s more:
While he’s in jail, Russell’s former girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) takes up with a new lover, a sheriff played by Forest Whitaker, who might just as well have found something else to do for all the impact the script allows his character to make.
We also meet Russell’s uncle (Sam Shepard), a character who rounds out the cast of hard-working, salt-of-the-earth Pennsylvanians, guys who toed the line, drank their beer, prayed the rosary, asked for nothing and went deer hunting for recreation.
You can tell that a movie is going for high-voltage impact when Dafoe — no stranger to tough-textured realism — gives one of the film’s more relaxed performances.
There’s no reason to fault any of the acting, but Harrelson’s frightening performance achieves stand-out prominence.
Harrelson’s DeGroat makes his presence known in the movie’s opening scene, a brutal encounter that takes place in a drive-in and which calls for DeGroat to ram a hotdog down his date’s throat before mercilessly assaulting a good samaritan who tries to intervene in the poor woman’s behalf. DeGroat’s wearing shorts at the time, a sartorial choice that gives his violence an alarmingly informal air.
It’s equally clear that Affleck’s Rodney has veered out of control — albeit in a completely different way. Rodney has no interest in working in a steel mill, has accumulated substantial gambling debts and simmers with rage over lost comrades and memories of war-time carnage.
Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi do their best to give the gritty Pennsylvania settings — steel mills, bars, dreary row houses and abandoned factories — the kind of polished decay that movies can bring to towns that have seen better days.
Bale’s deep-immersion performance doesn’t leave much on the table, but Out of the Furnace can’t quite transcend revenge impulses that ultimately take over and cheapen a drama that seems to be trying for more.
And try it does. If it were possible to get a hernia from attempting something meaningful, everyone involved in Out of the Furnace would need abdominal surgery. In the end, though, I’m not sure that this isn’t a case in which black-and-blue marks outnumber serious insights — despite all the heavy lifting.