OUT OF THE FURNACE
By Gary Murray
Starring Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe and Zoe Saldana
Written by Brad Ingelsby and Scott Cooper
Directed by Scott Cooper
Running time 116 min
MPAA Rating R
Selig Film Rating Matinee
Christian Bale will always be known as Batman. No matter what role he has done before or since, the Dark Knight in the cowl will always be his point of reference. Even though he was great in such films as The Fighter, 3:10 to Yuma and American Psycho, it is the trilogy of Batman films that put him on the cinematic map. His latest break from that character is the hillbilly character study called Out of the Furnace.
The film opens at a drive-in with Harlan (Woody Harrelson) on a date. His girlfriend laughs at him and he forces her to choke down a whole intact hotdog. The guy in the next car asks if there is a problem. Harlan gets out of his car and proceeds to beat the would-be do-gooder halfway to death. The scene establishes both the violence of this world and the violence of a major character. It is also the only action moment for the next hour.
The story then focuses on Russell (Christian Bale). He is a guy who has had a hard life but is trying to make things right. He is working at the local Pennsylvania mill and dating Lena (Zoe Saldana). His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is back from the Middle East where he has been on multiple tours. Something does not sit right in the brain of Rodney.
One night, Russell is in a collision. He was drinking and the wreck takes innocent lives. Russell has to go into prison. Rodney is off to war again and Lena is off with another man. After his time in incarceration, Russell is trying to pick-up the pieces of his shattered life after his last tour in combat. While locked-up, his dad died and Russell has the added responsibility to rebuild the old homestead.
Rodney has taken up bare knuckle fighting. He claims it is to make money but there is something not right in the young man’s brain. It seems that he has brought back something more than sand from the wars. There is this explosive streak within the man and when told to take a dive, he refuses. He has stubborn pride.
The basic element of the story is how Rodney forces his manager (Willem Dafoe) to set up a fight in hillbilly country in New Jersey. The manager thinks that it is a very bad idea to get involved with those back woods hicks such as Harlan, but he eventually relents. The fight does not go as expected and end the end, people die. Russell knows that Harlan is involved with the deaths and seeks revenge. The film is how Russell hunts down Harlan.
Scott Cooper is the director of the 2009 flick Crazy Heart which is an absolutely brilliant film. Here, he seems to have lost his touch. Too many times, the work feels like some bad reality TV show of inbred backwards rubes. The more the film goes along, the more one wonders, “What is the point of all of this?” Time after time, the film just drags along. It is trying to find a spark anywhere but never succeeds.
The single best part of the film is done by Woody Harrelson. As Harlan DeGroat, this actor plays a savage character, a person on the edge in every way. He is brutal to the point of acting magic. His crazed, hillbilly antics run from wryly humorous to savagely insane. This is another character in the arsenal of the actor. There is a solid shot for a best supporting Oscar nod with this role.
Almost as good is Casey Affleck as Rodney. This is a troubled man in a troubled world. His confusion over his rage makes for a strong character dynamic. He is a brilliant actor showing skills that need to be used more in Hollywood.
The secondary characters include Forrest Whitaker, Sam Shepard and Willem Dafoe. They have all had bigger roles but seem to enjoy being a small part of an ensemble. Each gets a moment here and there to shine.
The film is supposed to be a showcase for Christian Bale and that is one of the weakest elements. As Russell, there is almost no spark in the work. He seems to be sleepwalking in a role that deserves some serious fire. Simply put, it is an acting choice that does not work well.
Sometimes certain movies get lost in the shuffle of the year, films that never find their audience until much later. They are these kinds of flicks that one finds late at night on cable, when insomnia rears up as a darkened beast. Out of the Furnace should be one of those works of art, nothing to rush out and see.