With Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker. Written by Brad Ingelsby and Scott Cooper. Directed by Scott Cooper. Rated R for strong violence, language, and drug content. 116 minutes.
OUT OF THE FURNACE is the other side of the coin of last week’s “Homefront.” Both are films where quiet men with complicated pasts find their families under attack led by a backwoods thug who runs a methamphetamine operation. Both end with a violent showdown between the hero and the villain. So how do they differ?
Where “Homefront” was an action film vehicle for Jason Statham, “Out Of The Furnace” is a serious drama with an A-list cast. The weight is on the side of the story and characters, not the action, yet both play out in pretty much the same way. It’s the change of tone and emphasis that makes the difference.
Christian Bale stars as Russell Baze. He works at a Pennsylvania mill and stays out of trouble. He and his uncle (Sam Shepard) tend to his dying father, while his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is still coping with his experience fighting in Iraq. Rodney has gambling debts and makes money with bare knuckle fighting under the auspices of local bookie John Petty (Willem Dafoe). He is supposed to throw his fights, but he doesn’t always remember.
Ironically, Russell ends up in prison for a drunk driving incident in which lives are lost, and he accepts his punishment as his due, even as it endangers his relationship with Lena (Zoe Saldana). Meanwhile, Rodney insists on a fight arranged by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), which Petty sets up against his better judgment. We know it’s going to end badly because we’ve seen just how insanely violent Harlan is, and because the local lawman (Forest Whitaker) warns Russell not to take the law into his own hands.
Instead of providing us with a series of action set pieces, as in “Homefront,” the action for much of the film is limited to Rodney’s fights. Indeed, his big fight scene is intercut with Russell and his uncle deer hunting where Russell pointedly does not take his shot. The whole idea is that he is not a violent man until pushed, and that Harlan has pushed him so far that he emerges like the hardened steel suggested by the film’s title.
The movie has atmosphere to spare, although the characters remain archetypes: the stoic hero, the troubled brother, the morally ambiguous friend, the psychopathic villain, the well-meaning sheriff who can’t go far enough. We’ve seen them all many times before, and even with this cast we don’t learn much else about them. The result is that it’s hard to become invested in the characters or care what happens to them. Rodney gets a scene to tell of the horrors of war he’s witnessed and why he doesn’t want to work in the mill like his brother and father, but he’s primarily there to be the ill-fated screw-up. The filmmakers are locked into the action formula even as they try to transcend it.
Bale and Harrelson have the meatiest roles, and they do what they can. Bale is like a coiled spring for much of the film and it’s to his credit that we’re not quite sure how he’s going to end the final showdown. Harrelson is all “id” as Harlan, but he was much scarier in “Natural Born Killers” because we knew so much more about his character.
“Out Of The Furnace” is not a bad movie, but it’s not a great one either. In not providing enough action for the “Homefront” audiences, and not providing enough character to warrant this cast, it engages for a while but may leave you wondering why they bothered.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.