Silver Screen: Out of the Furnace *
Out of the Furnace isn’t one of the worst movies of the year, although it may well be the worst movie that carries itself as though it’s one of the best. Director and cowriter Scott Cooper piles layers of pretension atop a boilerplate pulp plot, adding little value to the B-movie storyline and not innovating it in the least.
This should sound familiar: A man who lives by his own code takes the law into his hands to avenge his brother when the authorities prove incapable of dispensing justice. Could be a Western starring John Wayne, morally murky 1950s noir, or an action vehicle of almost any era for Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, or Jason Statham.
Cooper tries to build a character study inside a genre-fiction template by downshifting the pacing and prolonging the opening act. Our antihero, Russell Baze (Christian Bale), works long hours at a Pennsylvania steel mill to save up money to start a life with his improbably luminous girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) and pay off the various debts of his impulsive younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a soldier wound tightly from too many tours in Iraq who pours his frustrations into gambling and fighting.
As if uncertain he’s convinced the audience of Russell’s roughneck nobility, Cooper heaps on the tragedy. On his way home from paying off one of Rodney’s debts, Russell gets into a car accident that kills a woman and her young son. He’s sent to prison for manslaughter, and while he’s in the joint his father, who’s been slowly wasting away from a condition he acquired from working in the mill, dies. When Russell emerges from prison, his supermodel-gorgeous girlfriend has left him to marry an overweight fiftysomething police officer (Forest Whitaker). The mill where Russell earns his meager living is soon to close. Out of the Furnace? More like Head in the Oven.
The situation takes a loopy turn when Rodney, back from Iraq, starts competing in underground bare-knuckle boxing matches to make extra money. He’s represented by a small-time gangster named John Petty (Willem Dafoe), because you know how those struggling Pennsylvania mill towns always have small-time gangster bosses who run rackets out of the back offices of blue-collar bars. Rodney keeps racking up debts to Petty, who fixes the bouts; the veteran becomes crazed with anger in the ring and won’t take a dive, and apparently it never occurs to anyone that if Rodney is such a great fighter, Petty could just bet on him instead of against him and earn cash that way. Eventually Rodney and Petty get in too deep when they go to rural New Jersey for a fight and run across the cartoonishly villainous Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), who is portrayed as simultaneously dirt poor and yet so powerful he can keep an entire state police force at bay with the mere threat of violence.
This is all just patently ridiculous. Cooper makes the fundamental error of mistaking bleakness for profundity, as if the very quantity of Russell’s suffering can manifest some deeper meaning. He flashes his realist aesthetic like a badge of honor, and certainly the sparse dialogue, grimy set design, and deliberate pacing give the movie the veneer of verisimilitude. But mostly the movie plays like what a rich Hollywood producer or Ivy League-educated screenwriter imagines grim reality to be like: Christlike working-man martyrs, a bunch of bestial rednecks pounding in each others’ faces in dirt pits for $100, and war vets who rage dramatically in a well-fed draft-dodger’s estimation of what post-traumatic stress disorder might look like.
Yet even while Out of the Furnace overstates its case for the destitution of what all those poor people’s awful lives must be like, it can’t keep the Hollywood gloss from shining through. Linger on all the paint-chipped houses and grime-frosted cars you want, when Zoe Saldana is standing next to them they look like set design. The emblematic image of Out of the Furnace’s ridiculous incongruity is the aristocratic-looking Bale sporting flowing locks and a neck tattoo. It says all you need to know about the movie’s awkward straining for credibility.
Aside from director Cooper’s unflashy but effectively framed shots and patient pacing, Out of the Furnace’s only redeeming quality is the level of the acting. Bale is solid, although he’s vastly more appealing when he isn’t taking himself so deadly serious— which he usually is. He’s self-importantly frowned his way not just through Christopher Nolan’s preposterously straightfaced Batman trilogy, but the airless sci-fi pictures The Machinist and Equilibrium as well as the leaden Terminator prequel. His charisma is all but muted there, yet so vividly on display when he’s wielding Bret Easton Ellis’s pitch-dark comedy in American Psycho or channeling Dicky Eklund’s huckster charm in The Fighter.
The real standout is Casey Affleck, whose squirrely, manic energy and soulful gaze have rarely been more effectively displayed. He grounds scenes that threaten to tip into melodrama and captures Rodney’s cagey energy not just in emotive displays but subtle looks and gestures.
Harrelson is wonderfully menacing in the opening scene, even if eventually his character is too hyperbolic for the movie’s mostly muted milieu. A looser, more self-aware movie with him as the heavy, Dafoe as a wonderfully shady go-between, and Affleck’s pentup pugilist could be great fun indeed. It’s a shame that this one isn’t any fun at all.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.