Movie review: 'Out of the Furnace' boasts super cast, weak story

CorrespondentDecember 5, 2013 

Christian Bale is a Pennsylvania steelworker in “Out of the Furnace.”


  • Out of the Furnace

    B Cast: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker

    Director: Scott Cooper

    Length: 1 hour, 56 minutes

    Rating: R (violence, language and drug content)

    Theaters Raleigh: Six Forks, Grande, Wakefield. Apex: Beaver Creek. Cary: Crossroads. Chapel Hill: Timberlyne. Durham: Southpoint, Wynnsong. Garner: White Oak. Morrisville: Park West.

America’s dying Rust Belt towns and the desperate people living in them are at the core of director Scott Cooper’s (“Crazy Heart”) second feature, which works better as atmosphere than drama. Beautifully shot in and around the depressed town of Braddock, Pa. – briefly famous a few years back thanks to a series of “Go Forth” Levi’s ads – “Out of the Furnace” is generally well acted by a top-notch cast, but a bit weak on the storytelling side.

Christian Bale stars as Russell Baze, a steelworker whose Iraq veteran brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) can’t seem to find a place in society, and is earning money by engaging in illegal bare-knuckle fights promoted by local bar owner John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Desperate for cash, Rodney convinces Petty to set up a big money fight organized by New Jersey slimeball Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), in which Rodney will earn big bucks if he takes a dive.

When Rodney fails to return from the fight in New Jersey’s Ramapo mountains, Russell sets out to find him. Not entirely trusting the investigative efforts of local sheriff Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker), who is dating Lena Taylor (Zoe Saldana), Russell’s former girlfriend, Russell and his dad (Sam Shepard) drive to Ramapo to track Rodney down.

In this depressed and violent atmosphere, the fact that “Out of the Furnace” will end on a downbeat note – no spoilers here – is practically a forgone conclusion. And this sense of predictability is only one of the film’s problems. A section involving Russell’s imprisonment for vehicular homicide doesn’t advance the story very much, given that Rodney is still messed up when Russell is released, and Russell easily gets his old job back. Lena has left Russell for Wesley in the interim, but Saldana’s part is so small – she’s only in three scenes – the character almost seems irrelevant.

The real sticking point, however, is Harrelson’s role. Degroat is a character so nasty, mean-spirited and violent, so utterly one-dimensional in every way, it’s as if he were a spawn of the Devil. It’s a dreadfully unsubtle role, matched by an equally unsubtle, eyeball-popping, steam-coming-out-of-every-orifice performance. Harrelson has done much better.

Cooper’s film wants to say something about the options America’s industrial decline and the current economic downturn have left for all too many of its citizens. Yet in an almost delicious irony, that story is told not in the film’s overheated dramatic moments, but in Masanobu Takayanagi’s evocative cinematography. All those shots of abandoned properties, boarded-up storefronts, and decaying factories say all you need to know about the desperation of the Rodney Baze’s of the world.

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