Out of the Furnace Review
by Daniel Rester
With co-writer-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart (2009)), producers that include Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio, and a cast that includes Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard, Out of the Furnace should be better than it actually is. But that isn’t to say it isn’t any good, because it is. The film is essentially a basic revenge story that takes itself too seriously, but it is also entertaining and kept watchable because of its exceptional cast.
The film follows Russell Baze (Bale) and his brother Rodney (Affleck). The two live in the Rust Belt, with Russell as a steel mill worker and Rodney as a veteran who has lost his way. After Russell is put in prison due to a twist of fate, Rodney gets more and more involved in a crime ring that involves fist fighting.
Eventually Rodney gets in a sticky situation involving a racketeer named John Petty (Dafoe) and a hardcore criminal named Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson). When Russell is released from prison, he tries to make amends with his girlfriend, Lena (Saldana), while also trying to figure out what is going on with Rodney. All of this also involves Russell’s uncle, Gerald (Shepard), and a policeman named Wesley Barnes (Whitaker) – a man who is now with Lena.
Furnace might sound like a lot, but it isn’t. It’s actually too simple for what it wants to be, though it packs a lot of movie. The problem is that Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby try to make the story seem more important than it calls for, brushing on ideas of economic hurt, the troubles of veterans, the power of brotherhood, etc. But they never add enough weight or development to these side ideas or most of the supporting characters. Instead the audience is treated to seeing Russell’s life slide downhill most of the time, with everything else given little consideration. Some of it does work, and the film is admirably ambitious in parts, but the end results feel a bit longwinded and empty.
Though Cooper’s efforts are a bit uneven, the film certainly looks and sounds great. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who has worked on such films as Warrior (2011) and The Grey (2012), paints some beautiful images with Cooper here. The two give a certain grain and beauty to the photography, making the Rust Belt pop in terms of story environments. The music by Dickon Hinchliffe is arousing as well, and the Pearl Jam song “Release” is well-suited for the soundtrack.
What keeps Furnace afloat, though, is the acting. Bale pulls off being a hardworking American character very well, adding on a raspy voice and certain looks that are really affecting. Harrelson is excellent as well, proving once again that he is one of the more versatile actors working today. He was just such a likeable guy as Haymitch in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but in Furnace he crafts a performance that makes one hate his character. As the villain, he is the most terrifying he has been since perhaps Natural Born Killers (1994).
Bale and Harrelson turn up best here, but they are surrounded by many other talented actors. Affleck is dynamite as Rodney, bringing an appropriate amount of edginess and poignancy to the performance. Saldana adds a good amount of emotion to the picture as well, and it is fun to see Dafoe in a small but juicy role as Petty. As for Whitaker and Shepard, they are not in Furnace very much, but just their presence does add to the proceedings.
Furnace takes too long to not go very far, setting up intriguing ideas but mostly sticking to a thin revenge story and a depressing turn of events for the lead character. The film certainly has a pungent atmosphere and thought-provoking moments, though. And it has enough terrific acting to just make it worthwhile.
Score: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B)
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language, and drug content).
Running Time: 1 hour and 56 minutes.