“Out of the Furnace” – blood on the knuckles, grit on the screen, but is it enough?

Every time I see Christian Bale on screen, I come to appreciate his talent even more. And while I might have not enjoyed “American Hustle” as a whole, I can’t deny it the fantastic performances with Bale at the helm. Therefore, I was really excited to finally see “Out of the Furnace”, since it has finally come to my neck of the woods. And while I definitely see the flaws in the story-telling, it seems to me that much of the bad wrap this film received across the pond was either completely uncalled for, or blown out of proportion… and I think I know why that is.

Written and directed by Scott Cooper, “Out of the Furnace” is a much anticipated follow-up to the acclaimed debut “Crazy Heart”. It is a story of guilt, anger, self-destruction, and retribution heavily rooted in genre, but set against a backdrop of a real-life small steel town in Pennsylvania, where nothing is pretty and everyone is dirty in some way. In it we meet Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a factory worker – a straight-up decent guy – who just clocks in his hours, pays his taxes, loves his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) and looks after his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), who has a gambling problem coupled with a habit of borrowing money from dangerous people. Having bailed his brother out of debt with a local loan shark (Willem Dafoe) for the umpteenth time, Russell’s life takes a massive dive, as whilst he’s driving back home mildly drunk he accidentally hits and kills some people.

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Upon release from prison and slowly trying to pick up the shreds of what was once his life, Russell learns that his brother has been involved in the underground bare-knuckle boxing. When one night he doesn’t come back home from a fight, Russell – without thinking twice – decides to find out what had happened and help out his little brother. That puts him on a collision course with the local meth baron Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), who organized Rodney’s last fight.

Judging solely by my attempt to come up with the synopsis for this film, one can definitely conclude that “Out of the Furnace” has a problem with its story-telling. You can’t simply summarize this film in two sentences, because there are far too many pawns in play in here, all of them introduced early on and crucial to the plot – and that should tell you a thing or two. Surely, you can boil the story down to ‘a guy gets out of prison, picks up a gun and goes on a mission to find his brother only to find himself in over his head, but I think it would be doing the film a disservice. And it’s not that the characters are badly written, because they are fine for the most part (so long as we recognize what type of film they’re in), but I don’t quite understand what the film-makers were trying to achieve here. The way I see it, “Out of the Furnace” wants to be some sort of a merger of a genre revenge film with a gritty indie drama, which if done right, would yield a fantastic story.

Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world and things never go the way we’d wish. While I personally don’t have a major problem with it, I believe that the rather unorthodox idea of rooting a pure genre story in a very realistic setting may have backfired here. While I don’t have a major problem with it, I can understand that some people would just end up bored by the glacial pace and the fact that it takes almost a half of the film’s running time to get things going. As I said, I didn’t care about it at all, because as I understand, the slow pacing might have been deliberate here, as if to underscore how slow and mundane everything is in “Out of the Furnace”. I am not exactly sure why, but I really appreciate what this film was trying to accomplish here, because I’m really tired of seeing ‘the pretty America’. In here everything is dirty and sticky and almost physically covered in filth. People’s lives are in the toilet (like pretty much everywhere), the pain of existence is very much rooted in real life, and there are no silver linings. And to place a gangster revenge story within that universe? …Twice as awesome, in my opinion.

“Out of the Furnace” for the most part does a pretty good job balancing the gritty personal drama with pure gangster cinema and the performances alone elevate the film from the flock of wannabe indie artsy crap. Both Christian Bale and Casey Affleck deserve major props for their work, with the latter being a major and pleasant surprise. I admit I haven’t seen ‘the younger’ Affleck in a lot of films and only “Gone Baby Gone”, or a minor role in “Good Will Hunting” come to mind when I think of his performances. I do, however, need to cross “The Assassination of Jesse James…” off my bucket list one of those days, but nevertheless I was taken aback by his intense portrayal of a troubled war veteran on a path to self-destruction. I’d say that apart from the mesmerizing backdrops and industrial sceneries, the interplay between Bale’s and Affleck’s is what holds “Out of the Furnace” together as a film. I wasn’t bothered too much by the really over-the-top performance from Woody Harrelson, whose attempt at being a villain comes across as caricature. It is effective in some way, since it is a genre film, but the character of Harlan DeGroat is disappointingly one-dimensional and simply lacks meat for me to chew on.

In summary, I enjoyed “Out of the Furnace”. It didn’t blow me away, or knock my socks off, or anything else for that matter, but still it was a solid film with really memorable acting performances. I loved the setting for the story, as well as the story itself with its brutal reality and relentless and depressing tone. I admit, the film sometimes dragged a tad, but once the story was rolling, everything held pretty well. I have come to really like the film’s attempt at bringing the indie drama visuals to a violent gangster film, which in my opinion gave the story a bit more gravitas. But still, “Out of the Furnace” is not a film for everybody and it requires the viewer to be prepared to succumb to the film’s flow in order to enjoy it.

Sadly, “Out of the Furnace” didn’t make a lot of money at the box office, but I guess with the autumn release date, the competition was pretty fierce. I understand Scott Cooper and the studio were quietly rooting for some award recognition, but it was definitely not in the cards this time. Quite understandably so, because the way it is put together (with the general themes, the visuals and everything else), makes “Out of the Furnace” a film to be either loved or hated. There’s not enough action, violence and suspense for it to hold its ground within the genre, and the drama of the characters is either not fleshed out enough, or not presented in the most engaging way possible. I liked it… but that’s just me.

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