Out of the FurnaceReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/06/13 13:57:23
It is one of the amusing paradoxes of the moviegoing universe that at just the precise time of year where the real world shifts into a theoretically festive and joyous mood, the multiplexes are suddenly crammed with increasingly grim fare from a creative community desperate to lay bare the horrors of the human condition for all to see and, if possible, score a few Oscar nominations in the process. There may be peace on Earth and goodwill to man in the streets but the multiplexes have decked their halls with boughs of holocaust, familial dysfunction and other unhappy screen subjects. When these films are done properly by people with a sincere point of view, of course, they can result in powerful cinematic documents but when they don't work, they come across as awkward messes that have been cynically conceived by people working under the impression that a bleak perspective is a surefire ticket to a little gold statue.Within a few minutes of "Out of the Furnace," it becomes abundantly clear that it firmly belongs in the second category. A lot of smart and talented people have involved themselves with this project but the trouble is that they have all lent their talents to a project so relentlessly and pointlessly bleak that it teeters on the edge of unintentional comedy and their efforts to match that tone with their contributions pretty much push it over that edge into the kind of button-pushing mess that makes the overwrought "Prisoners" seem spare, reserved and hopeful by comparison.
Set in the bleak landscape of Braddock, a Rust Belt town in Pennsylvania dominated almost entirely by a pollution-spewing steel mill, the film opens in 2008 and introduces us to the Baze brothers, Rodney (Casey Affleck) and Russell (Christian Bale). Rodney is an Iraq War vet who has not quite made the adjustment to civilian life and spends his days at the OTB pissing away money he has unwisely borrowed from the local loan shark (Willem Dafoe). By comparison, Russell has a decent mill job, a loving girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) and loyal enough to his brother to help pay off his debts. In other words, something terrible is bound to happen to him and one night, while driving home after a couple of drinks, he gets into a car accident and gets sent to prison for manslaughter. When he is released a few years later, he discovers that the mill is about to close, his girlfriend is now married to the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker) and Rodney, who has now done four tours in Iraq, is now involved in the underground bare-knuckle fighting scene in order to make some money and regain some of the adrenaline rush that he lost when he returned from combat, though his hot-headedness and his inability to properly take a dive causes him to screw up his fixed fights.
Nevertheless, Russell makes strides to putting his life back together--he has an awkward reunion with his girlfriend that becomes even more so when she reveals that she is pregnant and goes off on a deer hunt with his grizzled uncle (Sam Shepard) but now finds himself unable to kill such a beautiful and graceful creature. Meanwhile, Rodney is still screwing up and, in an effort to make more, convinces his bookie to hook him up with a better-paying fight ring across the state line in New Jersey. This operation is run by the fearsome and gravel-voiced Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a man who we already know is a violent psychopath thanks to a prologue set in a drive-in the finds himself viciously cramming an entire hot dog down the throat of his companion for no apparent reason and nearly beating to death the stranger who comes to her aid. Predictably, things go sideways and when Rodney disappears, Russell figures out where he went and goes after Harlan himself and things lead to a violent final confrontation.
On paper, "Out of the Furnace" sounds like a straightforward enough story, the kind that could have be turned into a perfectly adequate 90-minute B movie from the Seventies along the lines of "Walking Tall" or "Fighting Mad." Unfortunately, director/co-writer Scott Cooper, whose previous film was the popular and award-winning hit "Crazy Heart," has been allowed to indulge himself here by stretching the proceedings out to nearly two hours and detailing the miserable, brutish and hardscrabble existences of the characters at length. That wouldn't be so bad except that at no point does he ever present us with any reason to care about them or their various plights--for the most part, all it gives us is a group of violent, nasty and depressed people doing stupid and unpleasant things so that people in the audience can hopefully nod their heads and mumble "So true" to themselves.
The screenplay is also riddled with any number of gaping plot holes that will pretty much boggle the mind. For example, if you were supplying a fighter for a fixed match being run by someone that you know to be a full-borne psycho who will not hesitate to kill at a moment's notice, would you really bring him a brawler who has always refused to follow orders because of his stubborn pride and then fail to bring the money that yo owe him to boot? And while I am not a script doctor by any stretch of the imagination, I would like to gently suggest that if the entire second half of the story is dependent on someone making an inadvertent (and perfectly clear) pocket dial at just the right moment to just the right person, you might want to give the screenplay another pass to try to approach it in a different way. While watching these and other idiocies, most viewers may find themselves flashing back to "Crazy Heart" and belatedly realizing that once you removed the Jeff Bridges performance from the equation, that story was pretty silly and implausible as well.
And yet, because Cooper did lead Bridges to his long-overdue Best Actor Oscar (which I suspect will be looked at with as much incredulity as Al Pacino getting his award for the decidedly inferior "Scent of a Woman"), he was able to have his pick of actors this time around but he lets them down by letting them all chew the scenery at will to such an extent that it feels as if the movie got all of its Acting in bulk at Costco and is hell bent on making use of all of it. Bale is physically convincing as Russell but since the character he is playing is so two-dimensional, his efforts are for naught. Harrelson has played crazed lunatics before but never as uninterestingly as he does here--he broods and growls like a junkyard dog but too often feels like a parody of a backwoods psycho than the real thing. As for the other actors, their turns range from the uninspired (Affleck and Dafoe do nothing here that they haven't done before in better films) to the laughable (Whitaker's bizarre gravel-voiced inflections pretty much subvert every scene that he is in) to the utterly wasted (Saldana does little more than stand around languidly--which she does admirably well--before disappearing like the unnecessary plot vestige that she is). These are all good actors who have done good things in the past and will do them again in the future but with the exception of Bale, whose turn in the upcoming "American Hustle" is a knockout, none of the performers here will have to worry about clearing their schedules come Oscar night.Look, I don't mind movies that decided to provide viewers with long and unflinching looks at the dark side of the human condition, providing that there is some point to it all and that the filmmakers aren't just trying to score cheap emotional responses with the basest of button-pushing moments. However, while there is plenty of brutality and angst on display here, there is not a single plausible moments or authentic bit of recognizable behavior to be had in it at any point.Unless you have always wondered what "The Deer Hunter" might have been like if the guys had never gotten around to leaving town and having their comparatively cheerful adventures in Vietnam, there is absolutely no reason to endure--and there is really no other word to describe it--the likes of "Out of the Furnace."
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