Christian Bale as Russell Baze
Casey Affleck as Rodney Baze Jr.
Woody Harrelson as Harlan DeGroat
Zoe Saldana as Lena Taylor
Willem Dafoe as John Petty
Sam Shepard as Gerald ‘Red’ Baze
Forest Whitaker as Chief Wesley Barnes
Bingo O’Malley as Rodney Baze Sr.
Tom Bower as Dan Dugan
Bobby Wolfe as Dwight Van Dunk
Directed by Scott Cooper
Russell and Rodney Baze (Christian Bale, Casey Affleck) have had troubling times over the past few years with Russell sent to jail for a drunk driving incident and his younger brother Rodney coming back from fighting in Iraq, completely broke and owing money to a local bar owner (Willem Dafoe). When Rodney disappears after traveling up to the Appalachians to compete in an underground bare knuckle fight run by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), Russell follows after him, hoping he’s still alive.
The influences for “Crazy Heart” director Scott Cooper’s second movie are literally dripping off the film’s sleeve to the point where it almost feels like “Out of the Furnace” could be a remake, but no, it’s an original screenplay based in a setting we don’t often see in movies, the Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock and the world of underground bare knuckle boxing.
The film starts in a rather unconventional way, introducing us to Woody Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat, a brutal mountain man considered a “nasty son of a b*tch” who is in the process of humiliating his date at the drive-in. It’s an odd way to start a movie that’s really about Christian Bale and Casey Affleck’s brothers, but we meet them soon enough and get to see their lives as the older brother works in the local steel furnace and his younger brother gambles away money he doesn’t have. Russell ends up in jail after getting into a drunk driving accident that kills a kid and his younger brother heads to Afghanistan. They’re reunited some unknown amount of time later with Rodney doing so poorly moneywise he gets involved with underground boxing for money. Eventually, the paths of all three men will collide, and when things go wrong, Russell needs to bail his younger brother out.
At its core, this is a fairly simple story, which is why it confuses matters by starting the story years before necessary to show Russell going to jail while his younger brother goes off to war. In fact, the amount of time spent with Bale in jail, which has very little to do with the rest of the story, seems like a waste of time, since the movie’s first 24 minutes could have been explained in dialogue or even in flashback. During this sequence, it’s so hard to tell how much time has passed because Bale’s look never changes compared to Affleck’s that it almost defeats its own purpose.
That’s not to say that neither Bale nor Affleck are giving Cooper their all. Both performances are memorable enough, but at this point, we’ve seen so many movies about ex-convicts and the storytelling feels so disjointed as if Bale and Affleck are in two very different movies.
What it comes down to is that Cooper’s screenplay isn’t quite on par with “Crazy Heart” feeling like all of his characters overuse the “F-word” which is often a sign of lazy writing, but some of his actors also go overboard with the scenery chewing (especially Affleck). Most of the characters seem like typical cinematic white trash we’ve seen before with each actor trying to make more of their character by overdoing their accent. This is particularly true with Forest Whitaker, but at least he’s understandable, which can’t be said about Woody Harrelson’s Harlan, who speaks with such a heavy accent, he’s almost impossible to understand.
Even so, it’s Harlan’s unpredictability that makes him a menace that feels real and the film generally gets better after an hour when the setting switches to the Appalachians and Harlan’s motley entourage. (We’ll just have to have faith in Cooper’s research that there really are mountain men living in New Jersey’s Ramopos who stage bare-knuckle boxing matches.)
Zoe Saldana’s role in the movie as Russell’s girlfriend is so minimal and inconsequential it’s hard to understand why she’s even in the movie except to prevent it from turning into more of a “sausage fest.” Sam Shepard is a far more welcome supporting character as the boys’ uncle, and he has a number of strong dramatic scenes with Bale. Willem Dafoe does just fine as John Petty, the bookie and loan shark who gets Rodney involved in the fighting circuit.
One thing that does make “Out of the Furnace” somewhat unique is its setting and Cooper does a fine job capturing the locale with sweeping aerial shots of the steel town in which he shot, but there’s no real mystery to what happened to Rodney (since we watched it unfold), so the movie always feels fairly predictable on where it’s going. The bland score by Dickon Hinchliffe also does very little to enhance any sense of tension or emotion Cooper was trying to create.
The Bottom Line:
It’s fairly obvious what Cooper was going for with this gritty crime thriller that pays homage to films that thrived in the 70s, but other than some decent performances from Bale and Harrelson, this feels like it could have been executed better.
Out of the Furnace platforms in New York and Los Angeles on Wednesday, December 4, then expands nationwide on Friday, December 6.