Pittsburgh-Style 'Furnace' is both Overcooked and Undercooked

Out of the Furnace
(USA, 116 min.)
Dir. Scott Cooper, Writ. Brad Ingelsby, Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe Forest Whitaker.
What a disappointment. Scott Cooper follows his terrific 2009 debut Crazy Heart, which won two well-deserved Oscars for Best Actor (Jeff Bridges) and Best Song, with the well-intentioned actors’ showpiece Out of the Furnace. The only problem is that there doesn’t seem to be much point to the film besides letting some talented actors let loose. Yes, Out of the Furnace is an intense drama full of YELLING and ACTING, but filmgoers looking for fine character-driven drama in the vein of Crazy Heart best look elsewhere.

Out of the Furnace is the excruciatingly slow and overly Biblical mess about two brothers, Russell and Rodney Baze (played by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, respectively) in their small Pennsylvania factory town. Russell is struggling with the guilt over a drunk driving accident that left and mother and child dead while Rodney experiences crippling PTSD following a stint in Iraq.

Out of the Furnace takes so long to get anywhere interesting, though, that one feels as if one has sat through the entirety of Michael Cimino’s three-hour epic The Deer Hunter (which obviously offered some inspiration for Cooper’s film) before Russell’s story seems to have some purpose. Some nice guitar riffs in the score by Dickon Hinchliffe add to the strong sense of place in this attractively working class snapshot of small town America, while Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi give the rusty mill a place of prominence in the setting, but those too will undoubtedly remind viewers of the superior Deer Hunter, which also told of men transformed by violence. Russell mourns his losses and Rodney’s service is tossed about in a few scenes of key histrionics, but Out of the Furnace doesn’t really use the futility of war to make a point, nor does the film’s pre-Obama setting offer much in terms of metaphor. It does, however, make an ironic parallel to last year’s other clunker Killing Them Softly, which tried to say something with a lethargic pace, excess violence, and allusions to America’s 2008 turning point, but felt equally pointless.

Bale is fine in a surprisingly low-key performance and Affleck is equally good as the war-ravaged brother. Out of the Furnace, however, belongs entirely to Woody Harrelson in the brief moments that his snarly meth dealer Harlan appears onscreen. Out of the Furnace gives Harrelson a role on par with his work in 2011’s overlooked Rampart. The calibre of Harrelson’s performance, though, almost seems out of place given Harlan’s strange prominence in this violent film: he is the character to whom viewers are first introduced when the film begins, as Out of the Furnace lets the audience witness Harlan’s drunken fury when he commits an act of senseless violence at a drive-in movie. He appears only in passing for the next hour or so—during the period in which the sluggish script builds pointless backstories and subplots—before returning for the strange and senseless finale. This film might have been great had it whittled away the subplots with Russell’s ex-girlfriend (Zoë Saldana) and her new flame (Forest Whitaker) or the lengthy scenes of deer hunting and carving, which (again) reminds one of a better film.

Out of the Furnace is a complete mess as Russell eventually puts himself on a vendetta of atonement and retribution. How murder is his redemption for taking two innocent lives, one only knows, but the sprawling body count of the film’s violent third act is just as unwieldy as the focus of the film itself. The film is such a slow burn that one feels completely smoked out by the time anything happens. There’s a lot of potential in Out of the Furnace, yet it feels oddly overcooked and undercooked at the same time. This Pennsylvania-shot drama is ironically cooked Pittsburgh style.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Out of the Furnace is now playing in theatres.