As was the case with his directorial debut Crazy Heart, Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace struggles in its storytelling and guidance of a pedigree cast. Whether these middling to poor results reflect Cooper’s shortcomings as a director remains to be fully seen, but a pattern has certainly emerged and it’s not exactly a promising one.
Without the benefit of the Jeff Bridges Appreciation Train this go-round, Out of the Furnace digs its hole by piddling around for an hour before establishing a conflict. During this time, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works hard at his small Pennsylvania town’s plant, plots a future with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana), and generally looks out for his surviving family, comprised of a bed-ridden father (Bingo O’Malley) and troublemaking soldier brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). Breadcrumbs are also laid involving Rodney’s connection with mid-level loan shark John Petty (Willem Dafoe, with a curly bun ponytail), who in turn owes a debt to alleged inbred New Jersey hillbilly (apparently there is such a thing) Harlan DeGroat, played with full-on nastiness by Woody Harrelson.
If nothing else, Cooper’s main accomplishment during this uneventful stretch is cultivating an excellent sense of place. The hardscrabble lives of the Baze brothers, covering the honest and high risk/reward poles, effectively capture their Rust Belt community, but this is a film, not a painting or photograph. Through this excess of character building, complete with some odd soap-boxing about Operation Iraqi Freedom from Rodney and what ends up being a largely meaningless (narratively speaking) prison stint for Russell , the basics are nailed down and larger issues are teased, but without something greater at stake it feels like a bland National Geographic documentary. When the eventual conflict at last arises, the film hints at what could have been had it started near the end of the second act. By then, however, so much mundane content has hogged the screen that the sudden call to action, though welcome, seems to originate from another film entirely.
Thanks to this bland approach, Out of the Furnace makes poor use of a firecracker cast, yet one whose roles are also somewhat predictably assigned. To his credit, Cooper toys with putting these assets in volatile situations and letting them collide, but the encounters are consistently tame and barely build the story. Even with DeGroat’s wild card status and Forest Whitaker’s bizarrely frog-gruff police chief somewhat livening things, the story is basically filler for a supposed acting showcase that never materializes. Taking themselves far too seriously, why Cooper and his cast think the film is a lot more important than it is doesn’t compute and makes this one of the less fortunate blatant awards-bait pictures of the season.
Rated R for strong violence, language and drug content.
Out of the Furnace is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.