Actor-turned-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) takes us on a blue-collar drama of blood ties and broken dreams. Although flimsy on plot, ‘Out of the Furnace’ has enough solid performances from its talented cast to keep the story from completely derailing. Reminiscent of last year’s crime drama, ‘Killing Them Softly’ starring Brad Pitt, the two films share common ground taking place during 2008’s economic downturn in grimy factory towns. ‘Out of the Furnace’ was filmed on location in Braddock, Pennsylvania. It is the same locale used in Michael Cimino’s 1978 Oscar-winning classic, ‘Deer Hunter.’ Cooper is not afraid to borrow from this and other movies to get his point across on screen.
Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, a hardworking steelworker, who lives with his girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana). To all outward appearances, they seem happy together. Russell is a good guy and tries to help his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) pay off some gambling debts. Rodney is a military veteran who has served multiple tours in Iraq. He’s not a bad guy but just cannot seem to find a job and adjust to civilian life. In order to make money, Rodney gets involved with a small-time hood, John Petty (Willem Dafoe) who sets him up with underground bare-knuckle ‘Fight Club’ style matches. This eventually leads Rodney wanting to fight for bigger stakes with a terrifying backwoods psychopath called Harlan Degroat (Woody Harrelson).
While trying to do the right thing for his brother, Russell gets into a tragic car accident and ends up doing time in prison. After serving time, he finds out his girlfriend hooks up with local police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). This poor guy just can’t catch a break. When Rodney goes missing, this is where the film turns into a crime drama. The cops can’t seem to find justice so Russell takes the law into his own hands. This is where the plot bogs down and the finale is wrapped up a bit too neatly. Again, what keeps you riveted to the predictable story is the first-rate performances from Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson. It’s nice to see Bale in a film without the Batman mask on. Without a doubt, he is one of the best actors of his generation. His next film coming out this month is David O. Russell’s highly anticipated ‘American Hustle’ which is already garnering Oscar buzz.
Woody Harrelson resurrects his ‘Natural Born Killers’ persona to a scary crescendo. He plays the ultimate villain. There is a scene that really shows off his acting chops. He is cooking up crystal meth in a spoon, loads it into a syringe and proceeds to shoot it in-between his toes. As the drug rushes through his body, he stands up and beats his chest in a drug-crazed frenzy. It’s haunting. The other notable standout in the film is Casey Affleck. He does an impressive job portraying a disillusioned Army vet. When Russell confronts him about his illegal fighting activities, Rodney breaks out in a rage lifting his shirt to show a huge battle scar. He screams, “I gave my life for this country and what’s it done for me?” It’s an emotional scene. It reflects the frustration of many soldiers returning home from war without any job prospects.
This is a bleak look at the underbelly of America. It’s not a feel-good movie and that may hurt its chances to find an audience at the box office. It’s a not a bad film. It has a gritty 70’s feel to it but we’ve seen similar films where hard-working Americans are victims of dying factory towns. Since Cooper comes from an acting background, it’s apparent that he focuses on that aspect of the film. Heck, with an actor like Christian Bale, you don’t even need that much dialogue since he is so skillful at evoking emotion without it. The main problem is the plot lacking enough backstory and the paint-by- numbers climax. With so many Oscar-worthy films being released in the month of December, audiences may opt to wait for this one on DVD. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/ClzRVlMhU2E.