Less sizzle and more fizzled out in Out of the Furnace

Less sizzle and more fizzled out in Out of the Furnace

The distinguishing feature of Scott Cooper’s Appalachian Gothic thriller, Out of the Furnace, is its cast: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Willem Defoe, Sam Shepard and Zoe Saldana (the beautiful actress from  Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Avatar and Star Trek (2009)).  The last time we saw an ensemble cast like this in a depressing, melodramatic movie was August: Osage County and, earlier in the year, Prisoners. The seasoned pros, with the exception of Saldana, bursting with macho charisma, really are worth watching; if you can ignore the violent and clichéd misery fest surrounding them.

This is another story about two brothers, one ‘good’ and one ‘trouble’, and elderly, dying father, and a working class setting. Braddock Pennsylvania is a real-life depressed mining town that co-writer Brad Ingelsby chronicled in his speculative script The Low Dweller. The Academy Award nominated actor Leonardo DiCaprio was originally linked to that script and he is an Executive Producer on this film.

Breadwinner Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works in the steel mill as his father did. Dad is dying young (apparently the steel mill is like a coal mine). Russell cares for him in-between working, making love to his amorous girlfriend, Lena (Saldana), and paying off younger brother Rodney’s (Casey Affleck) gambling debts. When Russell pays a visit to local gangster John Petty (Willem Defoe) to make a payment, Petty insists that Russell down a whisky for the road. You just know that bit of the scene was put there for a reason.  Sure enough, the saintly Russell is in the slammer on a drink/drive charge and Lena bolts. Her love was not very deep after all. When Russell emerges from prison and confirms the news that she is living with the local Sheriff Barnes (a chubby, bald Forest Whitaker), he can hardly believe it – and either can we.

Meanwhile, Rodney has joined the marines and he, too, returns, naturally, with post-traumatic stress disorder.  To fill the void, he takes up bare knuckle fighting with Petty (Willem Defoe) serving as his agent.  Before long, Petty has reluctantly introduced Rodney to Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) a psychopath who runs a drug empire in a remote part of New Jersey, partly financed by gambling on these fights. No prizes for guessing that Rodney is playing with fire and that brother Russell will be dragged into the furnace.

The last time we saw Christian Bale, he was an unrecognisable, beer-bellied, jazz loving, unhappily married conman in the black comedy American Hustle.  From American Psycho and the Machinist to the Fighter and Flowers of War, Bale is the man to call if you want an actor to transform himself totally and crawl into a character’s skin.  Even the great Bale, however, struggles with this oddly nondescript character and uninspired script.

Academy Award-winning director Ben Affleck’s younger brother Casey (Ain’t them Bodies Saints, The Killer Inside Me, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), plays to type as yet another troubled, damaged soul who goes off the rails with tragic consequences.  Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and actor Sam Shepherd, whose early cameo in August: Osage County was the highlight of the film, is perfect casting as Uncle Baze, though why he’s given nothing to do remains a mystery.

Apparently the good folk in the RamapoMountains in New Jersey have taken offence at the way they are portrayed, in particular a few of them with the popular local name of DeGroat.  You can hardly blame them. DeGroat is a heinous, truly evil villain and Harrelson is frighteningly convincing in the role. But he gets a bit too much help from Cooper and Ingelsby who stage a back road murder scene that makes little sense. DeGroat might be unstable (a display of temper at a drive-in movie is proof enough) but why would he murder a source of income and require about 50 men to do so?

While DeGroat needs a small army to take out two men, and a well-armed FBI SWAT team, get the wrong address, Sheriff Barnes plans to rid the town of DeGroat all by himself, with no back up. Half the film is contrived and predictable while the other half, right down to the puzzling last shot, leaves you scratching you head.

Joyce Glasser – Mature Times film reviewer