Mark Reviews Movies

Out of the Furnace


2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Scott Cooper

Cast: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoë Saldana

MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language and drug content)

Running Time: 1:56

Release Date: 12/6/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 6, 2013

There's a five-year gap in the protagonist's inclusion in his normal life early into Out of the Furnace. It's the result of a single bad decision—getting behind the wheel after a trip to the bar—one ordinary night, culminating in an event—being distracted from a car backing out in front of him—that takes only a few seconds to unfold. His entire life goes to hell because of one decision and a maximum of five seconds.

Then there's the gap. What's fascinating here is that the heart of the movie is in that unseen void. We know his life beforehand wasn't perfect, but perhaps it was perfect for him. He was in love. He had his family in various states of health. He had a job, a home, and a routine. All of that is gone in one way or another on the other of the hole in his life.

It's reflected in the small town in Pennsylvania where he lives—a place that was once home to steel mills and workers with a likely booming economy for many years and maybe decades. The movie opens in 2008 before the financial crisis, and the town is already showing signs of decay and hardship.

By the time Russell Baze (Christian Bale) returns home after a prison sentence, it's practically a ghost town. The main street, with a sign proudly announcing the town's connection to "Steel," is abandoned. Shops are closed and boarded. There's at least one mill still running, but the rumors of its imminent closing are spreading. Another is just a shell, and within that carcass of the town's American Dream, there is only a place where the most desperate of men gather to beat each other to a bloody pulp as part of underground fighting circuit.

One of those men is Russell's brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), who is the namesake of their father—another dream shot down—and a veteran of four tours in Iraq. That's the hole in time in Rodney's life, and the screenplay by Brad Ingelsby and director Scott Cooper is assured in the way it puts these two characters in the same situation and watches how each reacts to it in his own way. They are both stuck in the past—in what could have been but will now never be. The most honest part of the study of these two men is how they are essentially the same people on either side of the abyss in time. The only difference in the men is that Russell is gloomier about his regular life while Rodney has become angrier about his continual failure.

It's regret that fuels them now. Russell pines for the days with Lena (Zoë Saldana), who left him while he was away and is now in a serious relationship with the local police chief (Forest Whitaker). With the information about her new boyfriend and the way he follows her from a distance, the buildup to Russell and Lena's inevitable meeting after their long separation seems to be pointing toward some equally inevitable conflict, but the screenplay instead gives us a tender, painful scene between two mature adults. Their connection and feelings for each other are still strong, but they both recognize that too much has come between them in the ensuing years.

Rodney can't accept his predicament. He used to borrow money from John Petty (Willem Dafoe), a local loan shark with a bad reputation, but Russell would covertly pay back his brother's debt. Without his brother there, Rodney has fallen so far into debt with Petty that he must fight to pay it back. He won't take a job on account of pride, and his ambition eventually gets him in too deep with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrselson), a backwoods criminal whose own reputation makes Petty look like a Boy Scout (Oddly, the opening scene establishes Harlan's brutality before anything else).

There's little in the way of plot for a long time here, and it's for the better, allowing Ingelsby and Cooper an opportunity to observe the brothers' internal conflicts and how their values gradually clash. The movie is patient with its characters and thoughtful in setting up the everyday trials that they face.

Then the story takes a sharp curve. The realm of the ordinary is dismissed for a mystery to which we already know the answer (The dramatic irony is there but never implemented in any meaningful way; the characters figure out what has happened relatively quickly). The villain is no longer a string of missed and wasted opportunities but a personage of unbridled evil, and the screenplay's previously sharp scrutiny of its characters means little as the plot becomes a barebones revenge story.

The only thing that distinguishes the movie after the turn is Cooper's decision to maintain a subdued tone and approach to the whole affair, but that method ultimately sacrifices momentum. The final act of Out of the Furnace isn't just routine in terms of what happens; it also feels disconnected from its characters in how it unfolds. Everything is on autopilot and a matter of inevitability—not of the tragic variety but of conventional kind.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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