“Nothing wrong with working for a living.”
There’s nothing like being letdown.
Whoever edited the first trailer for Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace deserves some kind of award; that two-plus minute teaser promoted more than just a soot-covered, vengeful thriller with an all-star cast. It provided a peak at deep cutting themes like economic instability, learning from past mistakes, the terms or morality when one’s family is involved, and the death of the middle class. Backed by Pearl Jam’s ‘Release,’ the trailer swelled with power and emotion, rightfully earning it awards buzz and prominence amidst the heavy-hitting fall and winter months. Like the trailer, the film touches on all of those themes and more, but unlike the trailer it does little more than touch on them. At close to two hours, Out of the Furnace is a poorly written and plotted thriller that thoughtlessly swings around hoping to hit some successful combination of the surplus of themes and ideas it tosses in front of viewers. Predictable, forced, and messy, it’s hard to mention Furnace’s clearest merits when so many of them go wasted – like half of the film’s staggering ensemble cast. Simply put, this unfulfilling smudge of dirt is of the year’s biggest disappointments.
Steel mill worker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) has just been released from prison. A drunk-driving accident that claimed the lives of a mother and her young child splintered his own serviceable life by separating him from his gambling-addicted, stop-lossed marine brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), his dying father, and his beautiful girlfriend, Lena (Zoë Saldana). Refreshed and newly enlightened, Russell looks to rectify all things gone awry, but he comes to the hard realization that life has moved on without him – his father has passed, Lena has found a new man, police chief, Wesley Barns (Forest Whitaker), and Rodney is consumed by a bare-knuckle boxing racket organized by the secretive John Petty (Willem Dafoe). By chance, Russell comes across evidence of his brother’s dirty doings, and when he confronts Rodney about it, Rodney shoos his brother off with harrowing anger. In truth, Rodney is deeply in debt to Petty and fights in an effort to repay the man, so in one final attempt to clear his slate he demands Petty organize a fight out in the Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey, where law, order, and all things terrible seem to be overseen by brutal drug addict Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). A couple of days later, neither Petty nor Rodney has returned, leading many to assume the worst. Though Chief Barns promises Russell and Russell’s uncle, Red (Sam Shepard), that they will investigate the issue despite jurisdictional issues, Russell intends on searching for his brother himself and possibly dueling out his own brand of industrial justice.
This justice should come at a high moral price regardless of Rodney’s fate, a mystery that one would think drives much of this rusty flick. It isn’t. In fact, Cooper takes half the film to even get the film’s main storyline going, packing tons of spoon-fed exposition at the top end that neither sets up real motivation or character development. The opening scene is a totally detached sequence introducing Harrelson’s Harlan, a vicious, terrifying man who drinks, curses, and beats any and all human beings. After this, Harlan doesn’t return to the immediacy of the plot for a good forty minutes at least, taming his character’s shock value at crucial points in the narrative. Further more, after a slow-moving musical montage set to – guess what – Pearl Jam’s ‘Release’ set over what could easily be mistaken for unused second unit footage from The Deer Hunter, Cooper leads us beat-by-beat through the normalcy of blue collar Russell’s life until sudden tragedy strips it bare. Approximately seven or so minutes represent whatever long measure of time he spent locked up for vehicular manslaughter before he’s out repainting his father’s old house, working back at the mill, and catching up with Lena, setting aside moments – meaning Cooper carving out signpost melodrama – to visit the crash site where he ended two innocent lives and go deer hunting with Uncle Red only to decide against actually killing any deer. So much time is spent building Bale’s Russell and introducing Harrelson’s Harlan when shaving off more than half of the first act would have done both characters a huge service.
Beginning with Russell locked up would have excused the rushed pacing, it would also have asked the viewers to surmise what Russell must have been like previously instead of actually stringing it out for us. Since we are barely acquainted with pre-jail Russell and don’t really get a grasp on the transforming incarcerated Russell – other than his now regular attendance at mass services – free man Russell seems to be more or less the same person from before. Everything before prison could have been left to inference, inviting the audience to involve themselves in the story and granting Bale the opportunity to be more nuanced. More importantly, not showing the crash would have strengthened the impact of Russell’s quiet repentance, subtly influencing each and every action from there out. Limiting Harlan to the second and third act would have also substantiated his villainy and ruthlessness. There leaves no secret to Harlan’s hollow morality when Out of the Furnace begins as it does. Even with a snarling performance from Woody Harrelson, gnawing on every set piece in sight, and Bale’s unmistakably poignant, caring, and strong willed sensibilities, Cooper sadly oversees the integrity these characters inherently possess in the hands of such talented showmen.
That’s why, simply by default, the film’s finest performance comes from Casey Affleck, finally returning to the big screen after what seems like a lengthy hiatus. Rodney is constructed through gestures and actions but forged completely by Affleck’s physical acting choices and believable portrayal of innocence lost. Affleck’s inbuilt mannerisms fit Rodney’s persona too well – the prepubescent voice crack, the mumbling, quiet, matter-of-fact delivery – but Affleck transforms when Rodney steps into the dirty boxing ring. The actor’s physical figure is broad and furious, while an intentional lack of control makes him a fire of hell bent face-punching fury. Keeping in mind the roles that began Affleck’s career, Rodney Baze is the furthest reach from Affleck’s beginnings, proving a massive maturation in talent and range. Even a forced departure into half-baked thematic territory, touching on post-war hopelessness and senses of unpaid returns, is wowingly played by Affleck, erupting with a genuine cry to the world that sadly goes unanswered. Affleck is thankfully untouched by the mess around him, unlike Whitaker, Saldana, Dafoe, and Shepard, who all get tossed about the narrative without much purpose or significance. It is the only time I’ve found powerhouse casting to distract from what is occurring on screen as a result of them being put to no necessary use.
Scott Cooper is the root of all detriment here. As a writer, the story has thematic ADHD and a possible fear of completeness while the dialogue gets slurred into jumbled sound clots mostly amounting to mumbled backwoods jargon. As a director, he rightfully paints the rugged drama on 35mm, but he fails to grasp any sense of pacing, cutting to long winded takes that draw attention to themselves and intercut landscapes of smoky mills and mountains relentlessly reminding us of the industrialized and wooded setting amidst an economic downturn, which is lazily tacked on by a single reference to the ‘upcoming presidential election.’ But, the back-breaking straw here is the bookending integration of Pearl Jam’s ‘Release.’ A rousing song in its own right, its lyrical significance winds up being too sophisticated for this botched grime as if Cooper is hoping that Eddie Vedder’s brooding will effectively substitute the absence of emotion that follows the unfitting climactic payoff. Adding the song’s arbitrary use at the top of the film just culminates in purposeless Pearl Jam excess, and once you start forcing Pearl Jam on me, a lifelong fan of the grunge band, then all bets are assuredly off.
It takes a lot for me to detest huge ensemble films and even more for me to pass up Pearl Jam, but Scott Cooper miraculously has made me do both in just under two hours of film time. With a trailer that promised a genuinely crafty and expert level film with conventional security, Out of the Furnace is a packet of filmic clichés right down to its title, barely noteworthy even with fine work from leads Bale, Harrelson and Affleck especially. Snuggling up next to The Counselor, which proved to be so morally and sanely askew that I’ve actually been recommending it, Furnace may be the year’s most disappointing film. Directing Jeff Bridges to an Oscar may have jumpstarted his career, but if this is Scott Cooper honestly working for a living, then I would be totally alright with not crossing paths with his work for awhile. In the words of Eddie Vedder, ‘Release me!’
Review by Mike Murphy