There is a lot of effort flying around in the movie “Out of the Furnace.” It all starts with the casting of the greatest effort-bringer-this-side-of-Daniel-Day-Lewis Christian Bale as working-class hero Russell Baze.
This in turn inspires the rest of this excellent cast to raise his or her respective game. Casey Affleck brings it as Bale’s brother, Woody Harrelson and Willem Dafoe stomp around as underworld lowlifes, Sam Shepard and Forest Whitaker pop up to deliver some honorable supporting turns and Zoe Saldana tries her best to play an everywoman as Bale’s girlfriend — in spite of the fact that even without makeup she’s still the most beautiful woman to ever set foot in Pennsylvania.
But it’s not just the cast giving it their all as director and co-writer Scott Cooper (whose only other feature “Crazy Heart” netted Jeff Bridges an Oscar) is trying his darnedest as well and packing the movie with loads of symbolism by doing things like intercutting a deer hunt with a backroom boxing match.
The question then becomes what has all of this effort produced? The answer is surprisingly not a lot. There’s not much doubt that “Out of the Furnace” is a well-made, expertly-acted movie, but that doesn’t stop it from being super-conventional or give it much of anything to say.
Bale’s character, Russell, works at a steel mill in a town in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt that looks like it is one county over from the town in “The Deer Hunter.”
Russell works hard, keeps his head down, and tries his best to keep an eye on his brother, Rodney (Affleck), a troubled Iraq war vet.
The movie then makes the odd choice of sending Russell to prison for several years for a drunken-driving accident, a move that only kinda-sorta services the plot. When you hire Christian Bale, he’s going to bring plenty of layers to his performance and you don’t need to tack any extras onto his character. You might as well give him a peg leg and a Russian accent while you’re at it.
At any rate, Russell tries his best to pull his brother out of a downward spiral as Rodney becomes indebted to local numbers-runner John Petty (Dafoe) and tries to even up on the underground boxing circuit, which takes him to the backwoods of New Jersey (I’m just going to have to take your word for it on that one, movie) where he becomes involved with the even more dangerous Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson).
“Out of the Furnace” plays around a lot with themes of revenge and redemption and really wants to get to the heart of some profound truth, but it mostly just winds up spinning its tires.
The problem with this movie is encapsulated in its climax, which features a faceoff between Bale and Harrelson. The result is pretty much what you would expect it to be with both actors burning up the screen, but the execution is so disjointed and unsatisfying it robs the scene of almost all of its punch.
I suppose if you wanted to take the glass-half-full approach to “Out of the Furnace” and its oppressive average-ness, just imagine how lousy it would have been if everybody wasn’t trying so damn hard.
“Out of the Furnace” is rated R for strong violence, language, and drug content.