“Out of the Furnace” Movie Review

     From the start, the oddly titled “Out of the Furnace” plays like a rerun of your typical working man fallen on hard times story with not much originality at all.  Director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) has assembled a willing A-list cast, but the script by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby doesn’t give them anything interesting to say or do, instead leaving them with a run of the mill revenge plot we’ve seen many times before.  The film begins and ends a downer and leaves the viewer with nothing to really hope for as the characters populating the story range from hard luck cases to downright filth.  This easily could’ve been a higher quality entertainment, but writing dialogue for characters of this moral level takes a certain flair the screenwriters couldn’t muster.

     It would seem Christian Bale has made a habit of being cast in a lead role only to have a supporting counterpart steal every scene he’s in and ultimately forcing Bale to fade as the picture goes on.  We first saw this when Sam Worthington’s breakthrough performance in “Terminator Salvation” made audiences forget Bale’s John Connor was supposed to be that film’s hero.  Bale made a fine Bruce Wayne and Batman, but no one would argue who the most memorable character was in “The Dark Knight” when Heath Ledger put on a performance for the ages as the Joker.  The trend continues in “Out of the Furnace” as Bale’s one note performance as steel mill worker Russell Baze is bested by Woody Harrelson’s Harlon DeGroat.

     A game Harrelson is the film’s biggest bright spot as he relishes his role as the vile hustler from the hills and mountains of New Jersey.  Harlon runs what amounts to a crime syndicate within a setting akin to what you saw in “Deliverance” and more recently “Winters Bone”.  A product of his environment, Harlon, with his grotesque and diseased smile, cooks and runs drugs while also operating an underground bare knuckle fighting ring.  A scene at the beginning of the film that takes place at a drive in movie theater leaves no doubt what kind of person Harlon is and how far he’ll go to show he is not someone you mess with.  Harrelson chews up scenery throughout and clearly relishes every bit of dialogue he is given with the spot on delivery of his backwoods drawl.

     When Russell’s brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), is in desperate need of money to settle his debts, he turns to friend and local bar owner, John Petty (Willem Dafoe) to set him up with a fight.  There are several bare knuckle fight sequences involving Rodney and each are disappointing in the way they are staged.  The camera is angled behind the opponent’s head as the other throws a series of punches and elbows that never seem to connect with any authority, yet when the face of the person struck is shown, the effects of these shots are way overblown with gobs of blood and carnage.  The sound effects used are poorly constructed as well, which leaves the fight scenes bland and uninteresting.  If these scenes were being depended upon to have any lasting emotional impact, than the filmmakers should’ve at least brought in competent fight choreographers.

     I wonder if anyone else will find ironic the scenes in which Forest Whitaker appears as the town police chief, Wesley Barnes, he speaks in nearly the same awkward growl used by Christian Bale in the “Batman” films?  Barnes is called to action when Rodney comes up missing after his fight in the New Jersey hills, but also is now in a relationship with Russell’s ex, Lena (Zoe Saldana), who abandoned him after he was sent to prison following an unfortunate accident.  These various relationships are merely touched on in one scene and than completely abandoned for the rest of the film.

     Cooper oddly assembles the majority of “Out of the Furnace” in this way.  Many scenes will tell you something, but then will move on in an unrelated direction.  There’s no connective scenes amongst the film’s many subplots.  We see Russell in one instance drinking a shot of whiskey, than seconds later, he’s involved in a car accident that doesn’t appear to be his fault, and the next scene he’s in prison being beat up by other inmates for being too quiet.  That’s three major occurrences covered in about two minutes of screen time, leaving the audience with a lot to assume without being given key details.  Even the third act is a cop out in the way Russell is able to conveniently create the inevitable showdown with Harlon, leaving the final scenes as simple minded as they are unsatisfying.  GRADE: C-