It seems to have all of the tools necessary for fixing up a great movie. An A-list cast in a revenge tale from Scott Cooper who directed Jeff Bridges in his Oscar-winning “Crazy Heart” role. But “Out of the Furnace” is missing something. Perhaps it’s the fact that the trailers mislead it as a heart-pounding revenge tale; half of that statement is right. “Out of the Furnace” IS a revenge tale, but in very few aspects is it heart-pounding. Rather, it’s an illustration of moral complexity, a very somber one at that, which is both good and bad.
The film takes place in a small, economically troubled town, where it’s inhabitants struggle to make ends meet. Russell Baze, played with quiet intensity by Christian Bale, works at the local steel mill, while his younger, hot-headed brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) has served multiple times in Iraq. Rodney owes a lot of money to this guy named John Petty (a respectably sleezy Willem Dafoe). So Rodney gets himself tied up in the world of underground fighting (think “Fight Club” minus the political undertones) to pay back his debt. Trouble is, this puts him in conflict with this other guy named Harlan Degroat (an impressively evil Woody Harrelson). Things go horribly wrong, and Russell has to take the law into his own hands. Oh, and there’s an irrelevant love triangle between him, Zoe Saldana and Forrest Whitacker.
In fact, the main problem with the film is that many aspects do seem irrelevant to the overall story, even though they’re supposed to be big contributing factors to it. Russell is sent to prison for drunk-driving and hitting another car (killing those inside). But how does this have any payoff? He seems like the same man when he gets out as he was before he went in. Does Zoe Saldana’s character have any importance to the overall narrative? Sure, it makes us feel a little something more for Russell; losing her creates more empathy for his character and also puts his ultimate actions in the end in a different light–he has nothing more to lose. But that’s merely all she is, a story tool with no real character of her own.
At the heart of “Out of the Furnace” is a deep tale about moral dilemmas–in Russell’s situation, or any of the characters’ situations, what would we do? But the trouble is that it lacks much heart in the first place. It’s a dark and gloomy film; it broods quietly in a corner in a season of Oscar stand-outs that are anything but quiet. It’s both its strength and its downfall. It’s not the typical action-revenge movie where the main character rushes in guns blazing. It tries being a little smarter than that. But it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
“Out of the Furnace” shouldn’t be condemned for trying to tell a more character-focused revenge story but it won’t make any waves either, and it won’t get widespread acclaim. It’s a better idea on paper than is executed. The actors are on top of their game. The idea is promising. Some scenes are even pretty intense–the ending will at least get you thinking. But the pieces don’t quite line up. It has the makings of a good cult movie, something that may be more appreciated as time passes. It’s kind of a shame, because it teeters on the edge of being a great film. But for now, it will remain out of the furnace but without most of its heat.
3 stars (out of 5)