Loose-Fitting "Out Of The Furnace" Misspends Terrific Cast

Writer-director Scott Cooper’s debut, “Crazy Heart,” was a conventional but moving showcase for veteran actor Jeff Bridges. The screenplay’s delicate touch allowed its star to pivot smoothly between belligerence and vulnerability, ultimately helping Bridges take home his first Oscar. Cooper’s follow-up, “Out Of The Furnace,” is just as restrained – and nearly as well acted – but tells a far less personal story, making the filmmaker’s steady hand a liability rather than an asset. The narrative is so straightforward that it requires the kind of flashbang storytelling that Cooper clearly isn’t interested in. The end result is as frustrating as it is unsatisfying.

The film begins excitingly enough. We open on a drive-in theater with Cooper and his cinematographer making excellent use of some crane shots – the weight of the scene felt in the camera’s movements alone. Within minutes, the moment is shattered by violence, a random, savage beating coming courtesy of Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). DeGroat is a deranged backwoodsman, using his gravelly Appalachian accent to intimidate and his searing eyes to provoke.

Once past the title card, Cooper calls on singer Eddie Vedder (Pearl Jam) to warble his way through some perfunctory scene setting. Vedder is undeniably talented, but his low-key droning is an apt metaphor for what’s to come. Here we’re introduced to a soft-spoken, morose steel mill worker, Russell Baze (Christian Bale), and his brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), both of whom have reached dead ends in their lives. Russell has a girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), but sees no way out of his life of mechanical labor. Rodney is an Iraq War veteran who moonlights as a street fighter. Their father lies on his deathbed.

As if this weren’t dreary enough, Russell soaks himself in booze to numb the pain, ultimately becoming the perpetrator of a fatal drunk-driving accident. As he serves his time in prison, Rodney becomes entrenched in a particularly seedy street fighting ring, one run by none other than Harlan DeGroat. Rodney’s mentor and business partner, John Petty (Willem Dafoe), tries his best to keep Rodney out of harm’s way, but the duo’s financial struggles force them into action. Suffice it to say, bad things happen.

And that’s where “Out Of The Furnace” ends its brief journey as a pedantic but watchable character piece and becomes an insipid revenge yarn. How insipid? Forest Whitaker’s role as a local police chief barely exists at all. The character’s primary function is to steal Lena from Russell while the latter rots in prison, but it’s a poor excuse to shoehorn a name actor in the film – made even poorer by using the character to drive the plot forward through inaction. That’s right. The story hinges on Whitaker’s character doing nothing. What a barnburner!

The same goes for Shepard’s role. The character serves no purpose within the narrative. He’s barely even utilized as someone for Russell to talk to. Had Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby simply struck the roles of Shepard, Whitaker, and Saldana from the film – all fine actors, but all squandered here – they’d have a leaner, more tenable thriller on their hands. It would be a slighter but more austere film. And fewer characters would have served Cooper’s bias towards minimalism.

But as it stands, “Out Of The Furnace” is two-faced. It’s a crime epic that’s not epic nor is it about crime. It’s about two men – facing existential crises – that have random, terrible things happen to them. Happenstance is fair game in screenwriting, but it doesn’t mesh particularly well with the kind of laboriously grounded stylistic choices that are on display here. The cinematography is appropriately bleak, but the film upends itself at nearly every other turn. When it contradicts its own candidness with a deliberately ambiguous final shot, viewers are likely to return the favor with reactions as nonplussed as the piece itself. It’s only fair.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: December 6, 2013
Studio: Relativity Media
Director: Scott Cooper
Screenwriter: Brad Ingelsby, Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard
MPAA Rating: R (for strong violence, language and drug content)