Its predictable narrative lacks too much ambition to allow for the characters to truly shine.
Out of the Furnace
When you consider Out of the Furnace is packed with a star-studded cast and a director who demonstrated outstanding talent in his previous film (Crazy Heart), it is disappointing that the biggest surprise of the film is just how underwhelming everything turns out. Much of the film relies on telling the audience how to feel rather than actually making an emotional impression. Scott Cooper’s atmospheric character drama greatly benefits from its cast, but its predictable narrative lacks too much ambition to allow for the characters to truly shine.
Right off the bat Out of the Furnace begins with a deplorable opening scene that lets you know what you are getting yourself into. The drug-dealing villain named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) force-feeds a hotdog to his date at a drive-in theater before her screams are heard by others parked around them. One bystander comes to check on her, prompting Harlan to get out of the car and swiftly beat up the innocent man. There is so much commotion caused by all of this that everyone is pauses from watching Clive Barker’s The Midnight Meat Train on the outdoor screen to see what is happening. While the film never reaches the same level of spontaneity or pacing as this scene had, it does at least set a gritty tone from the very start.
The film centers around an off-duty solider Rodney Baze Jr. (Casey Affleck) who has racked up a great deal of gambling debt owed to John Petty (William Dafoe). Rodney’s older brother Russell (Christian Bale) just finished some prison time after a drunk driving accident caused a couple people their lives. Now Russell works at a mill in town and does what he can to help Rodney pay off his debts. Rodney insists on entering underground boxing matches to help with his debts, even though Russell practically begs him to get an actual working job. But Rodney’s stubborn personality prevails and eventually leads him to enlist in a high-stake fight that crosses paths with Harlan and his gang.
Although there are times when the characters express emotions, they are rarely ever felt. For example, it is easy to understand that their father’s passing would be difficult to deal with, yet the film does not do a great job with making the audience actually empathize with its characters. The same can be said about the subplot between Russell and his ex-wife (Zoe Saldana)—save for a brief moment later in the film. The other part of the problem is that the film does not spend enough time with the more stimulating characters such as Affleck and Harrelson, and instead we are forced to spend the most time with the inert Christian Bale.
The best assets of Out of the Furnace by a long shot are the performances from the talented cast members. Despite the script not allowing Bale’s character a lot of depth, he does a good job commanding the lead role when its needed—especially considering what he had to work with. While the fate of Affleck’s character was destined for destruction from the very beginning, he breathes life into the film that desperately needed it. The roles of Forest Whitaker and Salanda were so secondary that they were merely serviceable despite their commendable efforts.
While the beginning scene blindsides you with its unpredictable action, the rest of Out of the Furnace stays on the same level of excitement without any real surprises. Because of this, the second half of the film is only mildly interesting enough to keep watching. The slow and methodical approach works better when there is something to sink your teeth into as a viewer—this offers little more than some atmosphere and good acting. Unfortunately when the film does attempt to spice up its narrative with some minor “twists”, they end up not carrying the significant impact that they should.