Writer-director Scott Cooper broke into the cinema landscape in a big way in 2009 with his two-time Academy Award-winning drama Crazy Heart. As this debut won its star Jeff Bridges an Oscar for Best Actor, it's little surprise Cooper's follow-up Out Of The Furnace has attracted a cast of heavy hitters like Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, and to a lesser degree Casey Affleck and Zoe Saldana. Unfortunately, Cooper doesn't know what to do with all these greats' smolder. So, this slow burn thriller never achieves a good burn or anything in the way of thrills.
The screenplay by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby centers on brothers Rodney and Russell Baze, played by Affleck and Bale respectively. Both are screw-ups with good hearts making the best out of the hardscrabble life offered in the Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock. But with Rodney being a soldier practically vibrating with rage and Russell being an ex-con with limited options, the two find little but heartbreak and disappointment in just about every corner of their lives. Then after messing with a bare-knuckle boxing ring in nearby New Jersey, Rodney goes missing, leaving Russell to seek him out or at least seek justice.
The bare bones of this drama are promising, but Cooper seems dedicated to keeping anything from getting hot or even engaging. The main thrust of the plot--Russell's search for his brother--doesn't even kick off until an hour and a half into the 116 minute film's running time! Until then, Out Of The Furnace is a barrage of melancholy scenes of idle activity and miserable moments of the many disappointments of Russell Baze. It is face-meltingly dull and unforgivably maudlin.
Perhaps you're thinking of the cast, and assuming I'm crazy. Bale plus Harrelson plus Dafoe! How could that be dull? The simple answer is Cooper never grounds the story, so its stakes are lost. Bale is interesting as Russell, a man of integrity who nonetheless has made some bad decisions that he actually owns up to. I admired Russell, but didn't empathize with him. He felt too much like an abstraction. So all the tragedies that wash over him and his brother felt vaguely depressing but not impactful or harrowing.
Sadly, Dafoe is declawed here, playing a weary old kingpin who's no match for the ferocity of Harrelson's drug-dealing, bareknuckle-brawling hick Harlan DeGroat. Hell, he's apparently no match for scrappy Rodney, who demands his way to a fighting circle he has no business being in. Affleck is a major problem in the plot. While much of the main cast can affect a burn of danger with ease, he struggles to look suitably intimidating. Frankly, he can't stand up against the talent levied against him. In scenes where he faces off against Bale, Harrelson and Dafoe, Affleck is clearly miscast, straining and screaming to attain the level of intimidating manliness they exude so effortlessly. He seems a runt running with the big dogs.
Honestly, I couldn't wait for Out of the Furnace to end. Cooper aimed for a slow burn tone he never achieves, and so the film just spirals out without poignancy or purpose. It wants to be The Deer Hunter, but woefully misses the mark. Instead, it's painfully predictable and willfully anticlimactic, both which I believe were intentional moves that didn't play as Cooper had hoped. I suspect we're meant to know what's coming and deeply dread it. Instead, I predicted what was coming and then had to wait two hours for it to just happen already. While some of the performances--Bale's, Dafoe's and Harrelson's for instance--are interesting, they are not enough to elevate this stagnant story.
The greatest enjoyment Out of the Furnace offered me personally was the rich setting of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Frequently embraced by the thick clouds of steel factory smokestacks, held together by rusted bridges, and riddled with dilapidated houses, the town itself is oddly beautiful and projects a story of a tough life of sacrifice and fleeting glory. It's the perfect setting for the movie Out of the Furnace wanted to be, but ultimately the film fails its setting and setup at every turn.