With a few nips and tucks and rewrites, "Out of the Furnace" would have all the ingredients to serve a powerful punch. The writer-director, Scott Cooper, previously helmed the Oscar-nominated 2009 musical drama, "Crazy Heart," while the cast is accomplished from top to bottom, delivering turns that are searing and frequently explosive. The film appears to be leading to a cutting dissection of its sociopolitical and economically ailing climate (the story is set during the 2008 Presidential election), but then wimps out in the third act and settles for the less-ambitious title of seedy vigilante thriller. We've seen all of this before, and better; it is a shame so many commanding performances are at the disposal of a script (co-written by Brad Inglesby) that doesn't hold up its end of the bargain.
Giving a textured and gritty legitimacy to their surroundings, Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (2012's "Silver Linings Playbook
") filmed on location in the working-class eastern Pittsburgh neighborhood of Braddock, Pennsylvania. It is here that Russell Baze (Christian Bale) has followed in his terminally ill father's footsteps by making a living at the town's steel mill. Following a stint in prison for a manslaughter conviction after a car accident claims the lives of a woman and her child, Russell attempts to put his life back in order. He moves into his now-deceased dad's home and begins to fix it up. He returns to the mill. He watches from afar as his former girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), has moved on with a new beau, older police chief Wesley (Forest Whitaker). Meanwhile, Russell's younger brother, war vet Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck), is having a tough time acclimating to regular life, choosing to enter a backwoods fight club as a means of making some cash. When he is unable to pay a debt that he and promoter John Petty (Willem Dafoe) owe to Appalachian hood Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), it paves the way for a downward spiral of tragedy that will take Russell to the heart of darkness.
A moody sparseness percolates through the blue-collar lives and shady dealings within "Out of the Furnace," the authenticity with which director Scott Cooper captures this particular milieu a particularly notable attribute. Braddock is set up as an ailing community where the steel mill is always on the precipice of shutting down and each corner and alleyway seems to be full of unsuspecting dark secrets. It is a place where Russell is actively trying to fit in, living an honest life as a way of making some sort of amends for the terrible accident that sent him to prison. Rodney Jr. is having a tougher time; he has returned from the war, but not been able to flee from the heinous sights he witnessed overseas that are permanently seared into his brain. He wants and needs money, but he is unwilling for a long time to fall into the expectations of the status quo. By the time he turns a corner, vowing to participate in one last fight and then be done with it for good, it is too late to turn back from a grim self-made destiny.
The British-born Christian Bale (2012's "The Dark Knight Rises
") falls so seamlessly into his role as Russell Baze that it is difficult to comprehend he didn't grow up in this semi-depressed Pennsylvania mill town. He is never less than totally on point, his emotions outwardly subdued but emphatically felt as he grapples with feelings of guilt and regret. The kind of guy who holds back at the last second from shooting a deer during a hunting trip but is capable of committing much worse when someone he loves is threatened or harmed, Bale ensures that Russell feels like a real person with a multitude of viewpoints and yearnings. As adrift younger brother Rodney Jr., Casey Affleck (2013's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints
") powerfully gives himself over to the demands of playing a character who must be sympathetic despite his irresponsibility, barely holding on from his pent-up post-traumatic stress.
Russell and Rodney's familial bond as siblings is crucial in order for the last half-hour to work, and it doesto an extent. What is disappointing is that it the film is so content to go down this familiar, threadbare route rather than strive for more. There is a banal sequence where Russell's memories of his childhood are depicted in the guise of grainy '70s home moviesan overused and contrived cliché. The narrative also doesn't know what to do with Russell's ex, Lena, or new boyfriend Wesley. Zoe Saldana (2013's "Star Trek Into Darkness
") is excellent with what she has to work with, but her character is underdeveloped, lacks understandable motivation, and has nowhere of importance to go following her initial few scenes. As Wesley, Forest Whitaker (2013's "Lee Daniels' The Butler
") is jarringly miscast. Not for a solitary second is it to be believed that Saldana and Whitaker are a couple. As for resident heavy Curtis DeGroat, Woody Harrelson (2013's "Now You See Me
") is terrific at being despicably slimy right from the jolting opening scene set at a drive-in. It is a bit of a one-note part (when Russell asks Curtis early on if he has a problem with him, he replies, "I got a problem with everyone"), but Harrelson plays it immensely well.
"Out of the Furnace" has a few scene transitions that are so abrupt and ill-timed one has to wonder immediately after whether or not there was footage missing. Beyond this, it is a superbly made picture at the service of a narrative that becomes more underwhelming the longer it goes. Surely, there is more that could have been done with this plot and these characters than merely eye-for-an-eye vengeance. The last shot is also all wrong, coming off as a tacked-on device to bring reassurance to viewers who wouldn't like it to close on a more truthful bleak note. Standing next to something like 2013's similar but radically more complex and thematically loaded "Prisoners
," "Out of the Furnace" is an unambitious exploitation flick that just so happens to have A-list actors and production values.