One part crime thriller and two parts family drama, Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace boasts strong performances and a compelling look at the disintegration of the American Rust Belt. It is, however, a difficult movie to watch — not just because of its subject matter, but also because of its sadly squandered potential.
Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a salt-of-the-earth type character who has no qualms about working at a Pittsburgh mill to get by. His younger brother Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck), on the other hand, is unwilling to settle for the same life, escaping through enlistment in the US Army. When Rodney’s tour is up, he finds himself at a loss of what to do with civilian life and is lured into one of the Northeast’s most dangerous crime rings, becoming more and more estranged from his family and community, up to his eventual disappearance. Russell must then make the decision to keep his own freedom, or to seek justice for his brother. It’s a fantastic story and explores plenty of dark places – guilt, shame, and redemption, just to name a few – while excelling in its depiction of a town down on hard times and its struggle to stay afloat in a dismal economy.
Where Out of the Furnace suffers is in its uneven pacing and inconsistent focus. Instead of feeling like a satisfying slow burn, the first hour and a half of the movie feels heavy and languid. While this offers an opportunity for the viewer to develop a real sense of the movie’s worn-down locale, it serves more as excessive mood-setting that could have been cut down significantly to achieve the same effect. It’s also extremely heavy-handed, with obtuse metaphors of slaughtered deer being dragged through the forest juxtaposed against shots of Rodney being similarly dragged through the woods by the crime syndicate he fell in too deep with. It’s at moments like these, when the film feels as if it’s desperate to be taken seriously.
As far as focus goes, the movie meanders. The strongest point of Out of the Furnace is the Russell-Rodney relationship, and the best parts of the movie are the smaller moments between the brothers. There’s a particularly remarkable scene when Russell finds out about Rodney’s dangerous forays into ring-fighting by the bloody scabs on his knuckles; Rodney flips him off in a childish, shit-eating act of defiance and Russell responds with a long-suffering sigh. It’s easy to imagine the two having this sort of relationship as children in simpler times, and it would’ve been great to see more of it. Instead, we get aimless subplots that seem like they were thrown in as afterthoughts – the love triangle between Russell, his ex-girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), and her new policeman boyfriend (Forest Whitaker) feel sloppy and distract from the story, as do the ailments of the Baze brothers’ elderly, bedridden father.
However, credit should be given where credit is due. Bale is as striking of an actor as ever, conveying entire monologues’ worth of exposition without saying a word, and Affleck’s natural surliness fits the restless, self-destructive nature of his character. The two have undeniable familial chemistry together, and it’s a real pleasure watching their personalities clash and meld onscreen. Woody Harrelson also makes an incredibly effective villain; he’s scary as shit as a ruthlessly violent, crank-dealing tweaker. It’s a shame, however, to see Sam Shepard so woefully wasted in a role as thankless and forgettable as the Baze brothers’ uncle, Red.
Out of the Furnace is intense and passionate, and the elements of a great story are there – strong characters, a rich setting, and a deeply personal conflict revolving around difficult choices – so it’s pretty awful to see it burn out before it reaches its full potential. It’s certainly worth watching, but leaves the viewer wishing that it just had something more to keep it together.