‘Out of the Furnace’ Review: Christian Bale Anchors This Well-Intentioned but Flat Drama

'Out of the Furnace' Review: Christian Bale Anchors This Well-Intentioned but Flat Drama

There's a difference between presenting problems — the death of the middle class, the treatment of veterans — and actually saying something about them

Less a movie than a tour of notecards on Bruce Springsteen's bulletin board, “Out of the Furnace” revels in blue-collar misery — the mill's closing down, the veteran can't get a break — without bothering to make characters out of its types.

DF-05544.CR2Yes, the working class is bearing the brunt of an inequitable economic system, and yes, the treatment of our returning soldiers from the last decade of war has been disgraceful, but the film has nothing of substance say about any of this. Just raising the issues and portraying them as tragic and important isn't the same as making an actual statement.

Clearly aiming for a 1970s edge — and aping “The Deer Hunter,” in particular — “Out of the Furnace” is a pointless wallow in blue-collar tragedy that ultimately feels condescending to its subjects; each of the players get one or two attributes to play, but ultimately they're just place-holders in an exceedingly generic story.

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In the film's 2008 prologue, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works hard at a Pennsylvania steel mill, making money in the hopes of starting a family with girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana). Much of that cash gets spent keeping his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) out of trouble with local small-time crime boss Petty (Willem Dafoe). One night, Russell has one drink too many at Petty's bar, hits a car and goes to jail for killing two people while driving drunk.

A few years later, Russell gets out, but things have gotten worse — after being stop-lossed into four tours of Iraq, Rodney can't un-see the horrors he has witnessed, and Lena has moved on, taking up with local cop Wesley (Forest Whitaker). Russell and Rodney's dad has died, and while Russell has his job back, the cheaper cost of Chinese steel spells doom for the plant.

Rodney gets involved with Petty's underground fight matches, even though he's lousy at taking a dive, since his war-honed survival instincts kick in around the time he's supposed to let the other guy beat him down. Desperate for money, Rodney gets Petty to put him in one last fight, organized by Jersey hillbilly crime lord DeGroat (Woody Harrelson); given that the film opens with DeGroat assaulting first his date, and then the beefy guy who tries to step in on her behalf, at a drive-in, we know this isn't going to end well.

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The cast is excellent and blameless; with the exception of Rodney screaming a litany of the horrors he's experienced at full volume, they find moments of honesty in this rote material. Unfortunately, in the screenplay by Brad Ingelsby and director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”), those moments never add up to recognizable human beings who resonate.

Bale (whose shoulder-length hair and goatee often make it look like he's playing Jesus again) carries a haunted look throughout, as a man who's always trying to do the right thing but who suffers the blows of fate time and again. His handful of scenes with Saldana are among the film's highlights. Harrelson, Dafoe and Whitaker get saddled with one-note characters, but they certainly know how to play that note.

The film tries to dazzle us with parallel editing — the evisceration of a freshly-killed deer alongside a moment of human brutality, say, or the creation of steel versus the cooking of heroin — but that kind of thing only works when you've made the human being a richer character than you've made the deer.

On its face, “Out of the Furnace” is a timely story about the world we live in, and its intentions certainly seem to be noble ones. But we all know to which furnace noble intentions can lead.

  • Joe

    it's unfortunate that you were expecting another Capitalism bashing, economic-minded drama.

  • Roger Pugliese

    Too bad you saw the film that way. I went to see it last night and thought it was a very powerful film. All the performances were great. Your critique of Christian Bale

    Bale (whose shoulder-length hair and goatee often make it look like he’s playing Jesus again)

    is mean spirited and stupid.
    It was precisely everyone's performance that made this film so good. In a role that could have gone way over the top- Woody's portrayal of Harlan DeGroat was one of his best performances. The casting of the characters in the Drug house felt extremely real to me.
    I also disagree with you on Rodney screaming- a build up of his years of pain. It was appropriate response.
    I encourage everyone to see this film.
    PS: I had nothing to do with the making of this movie

  • Kickstart Energy

    Yeah – I just saw this at the DGA & it is hands down my favorite film of the year.

  • Mayor John Fetterman

    Man, fuck this guy.

    I'm the mayor of the town where this movie was shot and takes place- Braddock. The film tells an important story to a public that is largely not aware that these places genuinely exist in America.

    Scott Copper and the entire cast and crew were wonderful to work with. They could not have been any kinder or more respectful to everyone in the community. It certainly makes a STATEMENT. I work 7 days a week to help make Braddock better. The water's warm, pencil-neck- consider this your personal invite to jump on in and help too..

    Mayor John Fetterman

  • Rod

    once again Duralde shows why he sucks as a movie critic … he prefers hunger games … little teen beat fantasy shows …

  • MovieJay

    I'm mixed about this movie. Although I like the acting a whole lot, I'm left wondering what this story amounts to. Seems like it's resigned to a kind of fatalistic viewpoint that life in present day America sucks and therefore let's make every wrong decision we can possibly make on the way to hell.

    I reject that. I could feel myself pushing against this movie for that reason. My other problem with this movie is that it doesn't seem to know where the goods are in this story. It buries these actors underneath layers of plot. So much plot, it doesn't know when to quit.

    Older brother works a job that is going to get shipped overseas; younger brother on his 4th tour of Iraq; dad on his deathbed at home with Uncle Sam watching over him. That's enough for me. That's all the plot we need. Just follow these characters in their real lives having to deal with real things.

    There's a great character study here but it's interrupted by being a prison movie, a fighting movie, a drug movie, a crime-drama, and a gruesome noirish revenge thriller. We've seen all those things before and we've seen them done better. This movie offers no insight into any of them.

    I think this is a notch above “Killing Them Softly”, another recent glum American effort that seems to think America has never been worse off than today, which is a very narrow-minded and selfish viewpoint to take considering what previous generations had to go through.

    And as for the “treatment of veterans”, I think this movie is living in the 70's. Maybe there is inadequate treatment of some veterans today, but it's nothing like the injustice of the Vietnam vets, who ended up fighting for the freedom to come home and sleep under bridges and on sidewalks and park benches. Nothing like that today. We've evolved as a society and have come to understand the separation between wars and the troops who are sent to fight and die in them. This is a movie that doesn't seem to have a clue that the VA even exists. Younger brother could be making more on disability than he does trying to pay off his gambling debts by fighting.

    Really good acting, but this story is so gloomy and by the time it transitions into thriller mode, it offers no real thrills or suspense. Mixed but overall negative review from me on this one. I think “Place Beyond the Pines”, “At Any Price” and “Mud” are much better movies of this genre in 2013.