Out of the Furnace

December 11, 2013 - An all-star cast gets to see how the other half lives – and dies – in this film from Scott Cooper, the driving force behind the critically-acclaimed Crazy Heart. Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson get most of the screen time; supporting roles go to Willem Dafoe, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Zoe Saldana and Forest Whitaker. Much of the movie was filmed in the Pittsburgh area where the story is set.

Bale plays Russell Baze, a blue collar guy who works at the local steel mill. He's dating a teacher at a day care (Saldana) and caring for his ailing dad. When little brother Rodney (Affleck) returns from his latest tour of duty in the Middle East, Russell has to keep an eye on him, too. Rodney owes money to the local loan shark (Dafoe), and Russell is doing what he can to help Rodney pay off his debt and keep him from getting in any deeper.

That's Russell's life until, one night, he drives drunk, hits another car and kills someone. Next thing we know, Russell's in prison. By the time he gets out, his dad is dead, his girlfriend has dumped him for the local police chief (Whitaker), and brother Rodney is in way over his head.

Rodney tries to literally fight his way out of debt by taking part in some unsanctioned brawls. In doing so, he crosses paths with a tweaked-out hillbilly from New Jersey (Harrelson). When Rodney goes missing and the law can't give Russell the justice he seeks, he sets out to take down Harrelson himself.

Overall review: *** I'll round up because of the performances. Bale is solid and Harrelson is especially good. But, mostly, I had two thoughts about this film. First, it felt rather derivative, like there wasn't a lot here that I hadn't seen before. In particular, the movie's atmosphere reminded me a lot of The Place Beyond the Pines and Blue Valentine. Both were directed by Derek Cianfrance, both featured a lot of on-location shooting, and both featured characters on the seedier side of life.

Second, I felt as though the director couldn't make up his mind what kind of movie he was trying to make. We had blue collar hero, prison drama, love story, mob element, returning war veteran – all rolled into one. And, on top of all that, there were sequences that made this feel something like an art film. That's a lot of avenues for a cast to navigate, even a cast as talented as this one.