“Out of the Furnace” is a film in desperate need of a jump start. For all its good intentions in trying to tell a story laced with themes of family obligation, it just never seems to get going. It has a set-up, but that’s all it seems to have as the characters wander aimlessly around the screen, hoping just as much as the audience that something will soon happen to break the drudgery that are their daily lives. Granted it takes place in a small town where the most fun to be had is betting on races and hunting moose, but given that the writers (Brad Ingelsby and Scott Cooper) decided to set it there, they must’ve figured that they had a strong enough story and characters to make up for it. Unfortunately for them, this is not entirely the case.
The story involves a steel mill worker, Russell (Christian Bale), and his brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), a soldier who has served a few tours in Iraq. After returning from his latest tour, Rodney quickly finds himself in debt to John Petty (Willem Dafoe), a debt that Russell starts to pay off, that is, before he’s sent off to prison for accidentally killing someone while driving drunk. When Russell gets out, he goes back to his normal life, but Rodney continues to owe John, causing him to beg for a big fight that will earn him some money. John arranges it with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a detestable man who wants Rodney to throw the fight. When Rodney very nearly wins the match, Harlan is less than pleased, leading to a rather rash reaction, a reaction that will set Russell on a journey of revenge.
As I mentioned earlier, the main theme of the film is family obligation, which is shown very early on as Russell helps pay off his brother’s debt and checks in on his gravely ill father. It gets explored at an even deeper level much later in the film after circumstances have forced him to try and hunt down Harlan. From these instances, we can see that Ingelsby and Cooper had an intriguing idea for a story. It may have been a little simple, but the foundation was there for a thrilling revenge tale that could have held the audience in its spell.
In this instance, pacing becomes their worst enemy. They took what should have been a fairly straightforward story and stretched it out past its breaking point, turning it dull and tedious in the process. As to why they would take so long to get their story moving is a mystery. A set-up should be somewhat short, taking maybe 15-20 minutes to set the foundation, but then the story proper should take over. There was simply no sense in taking over half the film, which runs nearly two hours, to finally get around to the actual plot. However, even then, it continues to drag on during what should have been the more engaging section of the film. Perhaps they were simply trying to set the pace for life in this small town, but regardless of the reasoning for it, it doesn’t do the film any favors.
While the plot may not keep things moving, at least the performances do. Bale gives an outstanding portrayal of Russell, a man devoted to his family. In fact, this is easily better than his overrated, Oscar-winning performance from 2010’s “The Fighter.” Affleck likewise gives a strong performance, showing all the genuine frustration and desperation required. Then there’s Woody Harrelson as Harlan DeGroat, a man you will come to despise by the end of the film, a feeling made possible by Harrelson’s unrelenting, angry, and ferocious performance. The film may not have much else going for it, but the ensemble certainly gives it their all.
Another irritating part of the film is that some of the ensemble could have easily been cut out and it wouldn’t have changed the story in the least. For instance, Zoe Saldana appears in a couple of scenes as Russell’s girlfriend. He loses her while he’s in prison, but she does reveal to him later on that she has a baby on the way. However, after this, we never hear from her again, but it hardly matters given her relevance to the main story is nonexistent. There’s also a policeman played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, who for some reason decides to put on an irritating gravelly voice. His main purpose in the film is to tell Russell to let the cops handle things, nothing more, so you can also see how much he matters in the scheme of things. All this goes to show is that the writers had parts that could have easily been cut to help the pacing, but chose not to.
Perhaps what “Out of the Furnace” needed most was just another trip through the editing room to remove 20-30 minutes of superfluous scenes. It would have gone a long way towards picking up the pace and helping the performances shine even more, instead of allowing them to be buried in a drawn-out film filled with excess fluff. There is the start of a good idea in here, but unfortunately it’s never allowed to sprout to its full potential. 2/4 stars.
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