Actors can't save Out of the Furnace, one of the worst movies of 2013

Actors can't save Out of the Furnace, one of the worst movies of 2013

It's very easy for me to talk at great length about movies, whether good, or bad. For this particular review, however, I'm going to just try and throw it out there quickly and get it over with.

out-of-furnace-infoIn Out of the Furnace, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) goes looking for his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), who has gone missing after a tragic night involving underground fight club bouts up in the hills with some surly inbred psychopathic types, headed by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). The cops aren't doing their job quickly enough and so Russell takes matters of justice into his own hands. Things don't go so well.

This could've worked well as a gritty revenge tale, if the focus had been dedicated in that direction. But there are several attempts to up the narrative ante that just misfire. There is a tangent where Russell goes away to prison for killing some people in an unfortunate DUI accident (a boring distraction). There is a wasted subplot about Russell and Rodney's dying father who passes away while Russell is in prison (never really carries any weight). Russell's girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) leaves him while he's in prison and hooks up with the police chief (Forest Whitaker). These last two elements are both grazed over, only mildly driving home the whole you-went-to-prison-and-your-life-went-to-crap motif for Russell.

There's an attempt at social commentary involving economic crisis and depression through the repeatedly driven home point that Russell and his father worked at the town factory (which is going to be shut down) all their life and working there should be good enough for Rodney, too (it works as a portrayal of a sad and common life that Rodney wants to escape, but ultimately it's a hollow analysis). Rodney did a tour in Afghanistan and came back pretty messed up (in a narrative thread that at least has some developmental meat to it – but it goes absolutely nowhere). So he gets involved with these underground boxing matches through Willem Dafoe's character. It's only after Rodney insists on taking more dangerous matches up in the hills, where crazy inbred rednecks who don't come down to the town and have their own breed of justice reside, that the proverbial dookie splats into the ceiling fan.

There are so many balls in the air that director Scott Cooper is attempting to juggle that it's hard to not look at it all as a recipe for disaster. You could argue that this is a minimalist presentation of events, attempting to summon the spirit of quieter, more pensive dramas of yesteryear, but to me it just feels scattershot and underdeveloped. A lot of these side arcs that are intended to enrich the characters and overarching story feel like unnecessary distractions. Somewhere in here there is a gritty, 70s-esque crime revenge genre film. That is a film I think I would have enjoyed far more. I really enjoyed Cooper's first film, Crazy Heart. A large part of why is due to Jeff Bridges' enigmatically ferocious performance. This sophomore effort is a significant step down. I get that there was a desire to interweave the layers of all these narrative threads. But the prison stint is a problematic detour. The social commentary falls flat. The actors, who are all stellar performers, each of whom I'm an avid fan of, feel lost, meandering through this static and unassured script.

The entire third act is a mess – in fact the end of the film just gives up completely. The majority of the first act stumbles over itself repeatedly. The middle stretch of the film gains some footing, but quickly loses all steam. The cinematography is dank and gritty, lacking any sort of sheen or polish, and that does work to the film's advantage, but only superficially so. Honestly, the one main radiant light in this film is Woody Harrelson, who does turn in an incredibly layered, fiery performance as the tale's resident villain. His character is completely underdeveloped, and his motivations are convoluted and far too convenient, however. But he manages to ignite the screen in all of his scenes.

I wish I could say the same for the rest of the cast. They're fine. Bale has some great moments. So does Affleck. But with this cast, you expect there to be fireworks going off whenever they interact. It should be electric. Mesmerizing. Sadly – there's nothing, no spark. It's as if the power is completely out.

At just under two hours I thought this film felt incredibly long. Conversely, I recently watched the quite excellent Prisoners, which is more than a half hour longer and thought that film flew by. All this boils down to: Out of the Furnace feels like an ABC Family/Lifetime movie of the week, with a subpar script populated by A-list talent that does the best they can to elevate the material. It's an incredibly generic and far from special film. I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately they were dashed. It's pretty bottom of the list for 2013.

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars (I was tempted to rank lower, but the cast alone deserves at least some commendation, so I decided to be generous)

Jakob Bilinski is a writer and film director who contributes to Going For Gusto. Please help us out by liking the Facebook page at Facebook.com/GoingForGusto.

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