On paper, Out of the Furnace is a slam dunk of a movie. Combine several of the finest actors of their generation with a hot director, set it in a gritty postwar fever dream and watch the fireworks. The result, however, is a good film that touches true greatness just often enough that it feels that much more disappointing.
Christian Bale gives perhaps his finest performance ever as Russell Baze, a Pennsylvania steel mill worker trying to make ends meet. He and his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) are taking care of their terminally ill father when Casey is called to serve in Iraq. Around the same time, Russell causes a fatal traffic accident while driving drunk and is forced to spend time in prison. When both men come back from their respective hells, Russell attempts to get his life back on track with his former girlfriend, Lena (a mesmerizing Zoe Saldana) while Rodney makes money fighting and gets involved with a scuzzy promoter (Willem Dafoe). When Rodney’s business causes him to run afoul of Harlan (Woody Harrelson), a vicious backwoods crime lord, he disappears, and, with the trail seemingly gone cold, Russell decides to track down his brother outside the bounds of the law.
What makes the simple story stand out are the fantastic performances. Bale is firing on all cylinders here as a man trying to do the right thing but beset on all sides by disappointment after disappointment. His trademark physicality and emotional expressions are on full display here. In particular, a scene between Russell and Lena after he gets out of prison is a master class in acting. Harrelson is terrifying, if a bit one-note, as the villain, and Affleck does a great job as directionless vet who always seems to be feeling some mix of anger, fear or resentment. His performance recalls the likes of the great Tobey Maguire in Brothers or Robert DeNiro in The Deer Hunter.
In fact, Out of the Furnace often feels like a beguiling mix of those two films. Its gloomy ashen towers, dilapidated houses and bleak Pennsylvania landscapes are obvious visual homages to The Deer Hunter; in dealing with the ramifications of blue collar workers-turned-soldiers returning home, it seems like that film dolled up for a new generation. It’s a bold comparison to one of my all-time favorites, but the film occasionally earns it, particularly in the scenes between the two brothers, both trying to make their way but seemingly failing in different ways.
As the film moved past these compelling moments to the more mundane machinations of the revenge story, my interest began to wane. We’ve seen stories like this before, done much better. The only real pleasure towards the end of the film (besides the beautiful cinematography) is seeing these actors give it their all even when playing characters that aren’t as fleshed out as we’d like them to be. The thin plot often sets up conflicts without delivering on them; a subplot involving police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker), the man committed to finding Rodney who also happens to be Lena’s new lover, is particularly undercooked. Director Scott Cooper’s leisurely pace suits the first half of the film well, but leaves the more traditional revenge plot completely unsatisfying. It feels, at times, like two different movies, both struggling for dominance, neither coming out on top. The ending is a letdown, and negates much of the dramatic tension so palpable in the rest of the film.
Out of the Furnace reminds me a lot of the 2009 film Brothers. Both are potent postwar dramas featuring stellar performances, but they’re also merely good movies with great ones trapped inside, struggling to get out. Out of the Furnace is not as good as the sum of its parts, but man, those are some really good parts. If there are many faults to find in the whole, it is still an electrifying film, featuring some of the finest living actors giving it their all. Even if you leave feeling unfulfilled, you won’t be able to take your eyes off it while it lasts.