Out of the Furnace
Scott Cooper’s sophomore film is a handsomely mounted, well-performed revenge drama with pretensions of being about “stuff”. You know, meaty stuff, like man’s propensity for violence and the disintegration of local economies. As good as it is in moments – a scene here or there – it fails to resonate on a broader level. As if merely invoking thematic content and having it stretch in bloated fashion across the Pennsylvania landscape, accompanied by Pearl Jam, is enough. It isn’t and the result is distinctly underwhelming.
Cooper wrote the screenplay with Brad Ingelsby, and he takes in a range of tropes, all of them over-familiar. Christian Bale is Russell Baze, a blue-collar steel worker who serves a stretch for vehicular homicide (he was over the limit at the wheel). While he is inside his Iraq veteran younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) has resorted to bareknuckle boxing, in consort with John Petty (Willem Dafoe) a loan shark and wheeler-dealer. The two of them go missing after Rodney persuades Petty to get him a fight in New Jersey. This is Deliverance territory, where even the police fear to tread, which leads Russell to make his own justice.
We’ve seen all this before, but rarely with quite such sombre and self-important posturing. Yet none of it feels quite right. Elements are plucked out of the air because they sound dramatic, rather than because they add up. It’s an easy dramatic device to feature an unstable soldier in a movie, one who can’t handle the things he saw. And it’s an even easier one to have a psychotic backwater loon who’ll kill you as soon as give the time of day. Affleck, master of mumblecore delivery, gives it his best shot but he’s miscast as a super bruiser. We just don’t believe he’s that tough. In contrast, Woody Harrelson steals the picture as Harlan DeGroat, the crazy drug dealer who force-feeds his date a hotdog during the opening drive-in scene. We’ve seen Harrelson do crazy-eyed lunacy before, but here he manages to out-intimidate himself. It’s a rivetting performance and the picture only really kicks into gear when he’s around.
Furnace is littered with good actors in small, unrewarding roles. Dafoe is ever watchable. Forrest Whitaker must have wanted to work with Cooper badly, as he hardly needed to show up for the non-plum part of the local police chief. Likewise Zoe Saldana as Russell’s ex. Then there’s the great Sam Shepard as the Russells’ Uncle Gerald. Bale is typically sincere and determined, but there really isn’t much to get worked up about in Russell. He’s well-meaning (paying off his brother’s debts), makes mistakes (getting over-the-limit, not thinking through the consequences of luring DeGroat into his trap), but is stoically dull.
Like Killing them Softly, the film picks up at Obama’s first election, although this appears only as a means to gauge how long Russell is in stir for (that said, I’m not clear if this is set mainly in the present day; I don’t think we find out how long he’s incarcerated). Cooper seems to want to make all sorts of commentaries, but cant disguise how this breaks down into a simple revenge thriller with some fairly unlikely developments along the way. He makes heavy weather of certain sequences too. The intercutting between Russell and Gerald going hunting (invoking The Deer Hunter) and Rodney preparing for his fight is excruciating and banal. There’s the occasional inspired moment – a SWAT team approaching through a quiet field – but they are few and far between. Whatever themes Cooper is aiming for, he misses. There’s no discernable debate on the rights and wrongs of Russell’s violence path, or no more than in your average thriller.
Indeed, Furnace takes its merry time to reach a conclusion, and one can’t help but wonder what it was all in aid of. Cooper is keen on verisimilitude in performance and location, but his plotting actively works against this. It is neither weighty not insightful, and some elements, such as the PTSD, are so obvious as to be near glib. Cooper’s languorous filmmaking style suited Crazy Heart, but here he comes unstuck. Out of the Furnace is neither fish nor fowl, not smart enough to reach for some sort of hallowed Winter’s Bone status and not nearly hokum enough to have a good time with its revenge plot (Harrelson at least knows he is in the latter movie). This doesn’t bode well for Cooper’s next, Black Mass with Johnny Deep Whitey Bulger. This is one of those movies few will remember; neither especially good nor bad, it is only the casting that sustains interest. Still, if you have a rep as an actor’s director (Cooper is also an a thesp) you’ll probably attract names no matter how mediocre the results are.