Every year, around the awards season, a film gets released with the kind of A-list actors normally reeled off if you were at the pub and were asked the question, “What cast would you have in your film?” With the exception of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, it’s unlikely you will see a film in 2014 with as much acting clout as Out of the Furnace. Writer/director Scott Cooper’s follow-up to his Oscar winning debut, Crazy Heart, is another character study set in the back-roads of America, Cooper once again focusing on people who are out-of-place in the country that is supposed to be their home.
Out of the Furnace has a top-rate cast that struggles to fit all of the names on the film’s poster: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and Zoe Saldana – all on fine form. Most critics have been praising Bale and Affleck, and deservedly so, as brothers both struggling to make ends meet, frustrated with the lives they are forced to live, but taking out their anger in different ways. Bale, famous for pushing the envelope in films such as The Machinist and The Fighter gives a toned-down, understated performance as Russell Baze, speaking softly and permanently exhausted. Affleck, on the other hand, as Rodney, is the other extreme, his rage constantly threatening to rise to the surface; he is uptight and always anxious.
Special mention has to go to Woody Harrelson, who has built a career on playing villains and anti-heroes with all-sorts going on inside their heads, but with Out of the Furnace he gives one of his very best performances as small-time drug dealer Harlan DeGroat. The film opens by introducing our antagonist, and for almost a minute Harrelson is silent, just sitting there, staring. This is an uncomfortable scene to watch, DeGroat bringing to mind a spring trap getting tighter and tighter. We know he is going to do something to the poor woman sat in his car; you’re just waiting for it to happen. DeGroat thinks he is untouchable, king of his own little empire, but he is more white trash than Don Corleone.
Saldana, while not getting much in the way of screen time, stands head-and-shoulders with the rest of the cast, being given the film’s most moving scene as she tells former boyfriend Bale that she is pregnant with Forest Whitaker’s child, the two of them reflecting on what they could have had if life had turned out differently. It is an honest, gentle scene, admirably played down by both actors.
The problem with Out of the Furnace is Cooper’s script. It’s hard to say what the film is about as the narrative goes in one direction before wildly swerving off somewhere else. Bale is sent to prison for drink driving, his girlfriend Saldana leaving him. Affleck has been chewed up and spit out by the U.S. army, living in limbo and wondering what to do with the rest of his life, descending into the dingy world of bare knuckle fighting. This is followed by the second half, where Bale takes the law into his own hands and wages a one man war against Harrelson. The film feels like a series of sub-plots rather than one narrative that sees its protagonists change in some way. It’s a respectable two hours, but very rarely do you feel engaged with the two lead actors. This should be a weighty, emotionally draining watch, but because Out of the Furnace takes so long to become a vigilante film, trying its hand at different narratives and not spending enough time on any of them, it is nowhere near as sharp or elaborate as Cooper intended.
Out of the Furnace is an angry film, focusing on those living below the poverty line, left behind by the rest of America. Everything that Cooper highlights, small industrial towns lined with boarded up streets, where the only hope is to leave for somewhere else, is all valid, but Out of the Furnace’s message feels more like a murmur than a blood spitting rant. Cooper’s latest is worth seeing for the performances alone but, due to a muddled script, is nowhere near as gristly or heartfelt as it deserves to be.
3 out of 5