Movie Review: 'Out of the Furnace' (2013)

Director Scott Cooper’s follow-up to the Oscar winning “Crazy Heart” is in a word, mellow. As the story unfolds it makes its intentions clear, it is in no hurry to get anywhere, fast. While there is something to be said for a meditative approach to storytelling, there comes a point when that style becomes distracting to the overall narrative. It borders on an attempt to camouflage a lack of content.

The story of “Out of the Furnace” is simple and if you have seen the trailer, you have practically seen the meat of the entire of the plot. Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) are brothers in the downtrodden Rust Belt of America. Rodney, a war vet, is struggling to find a purpose in life and his restless nature; counteracts any chance for a 9-5 job.

Older brother Russell is battling his own demons after a stint in prison, so when Rodney goes missing after an underground fight for Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), the head honcho of the Northeast crime syndicate, things reach an unseemly crossroads.

Cooper’s script unravels with an easy pace and the action is straightforward. This is not a mystery. The major plot points are shown to the audience and revealed shortly thereafter, to the characters.

This creates a lack of engrossment as there is no real tension. What the audience was promised in the trailer accounts for a little over 2/3 of the film. As a result, the last act of the film is the only new footage you actually get to see.

The only thing that is “enhanced” through the nearly 2 hour viewing experience is Cooper’s cuts back and forth between the simultaneous events of a deer hunt in the forest and Rodney’s fateful bare-knuckle fight. As compelling as that might sound on paper, the end result comes across as a dull attempt to bring poetic symmetry to the activity.

“Out of the Furnace” is similar to a sweltering inferno, in that it conjures lethargic and apathetic effects. There should be more of a story for the likes of Christian Bale and the rest of the cast to cut their teeth on. What they are left with is a story that could have been told in 15 minutes and is unnaturally stretched beyond its limitations.

Bale gives a strong performance with what he is given, which is not much. Casey Affleck does his level best to execute his role as the haunted Rodney. However, he feels miscast in the role. The incredibly lean Affleck is hard to watch in fights that are difficult to believe he would be capable of winning, especially against opponents that are much bulkier.

The physicality is not there and neither is the brotherly chemistry that would believably explain Russell’s devotion to his wayward kid brother. As a result, their connection is only cerebrally comprehensible.

As for the remaining cast, Zoe Saldana gives an intense performance as Russell's ex-lover. Frustratingly, her character is underdeveloped and makes decisions that make no rational sense, given what is depicted at certain points in the film.

Woody Harrelson is a standout with his gritty portrayal of the brutal, small time kingpin who evokes fear with a ravenous edge that is jaggedly unnerving. Cooper’s direction tries to play itself off as restraint, in the vein of Terrence Malick, only to stay so hands off that the overall picture never resonates with any warmth or life whatsoever.

Where a film like “Out of the Furnace” does succeed is in shining a light on the little portrayed slice of American life, known as the Rust Belt. Albeit, one might hope that in one of the rare occasions its populace is portrayed on-screen it was with a more widely sympathetic depiction.

As a whole, "Out of the Furnace" always feels like it is on the brink of something more significant, only to fail in rising to its potential. Compressed with better access to its protagonists and featuring an actual ending, it could have been so much more. Rating: 6/10