“Out of the Furnace,” Scott Cooper’s brutal look at life in an economically depressed steel town, earned largely positive notices after it premiered at the AFI Fest in Hollywood on Saturday night, although a few critics noted that this dark thriller may face a lot of hurdles if it wants to break into the Oscar race.
The movie, which stars Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson and Casey Affleck, centers on two Rust Belt brothers, one an Iraq War veteran and the other a convict struggling to repair his life. Issues like drug addiction and post-traumatic stress also bubble up in the hardscrabble drama, which debuts on Dec. 6, 2013.
In TheWrap, Alonso Duralde complained that the film had grand ambitions to shine a light on the diminution of the American dream, but was overly pedantic. He praised the performances of Bale and Harrelson, but felt the actors couldn’t elevate the material.
“Yes, 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,” Durale wrote. “Just raising the issues and portraying them as tragic and important isn’t the same as making an actual statement.”
Duralde’s assessment was echoed by HitFix’s Drew McWeeny, who felt the film was over-stuffed and suffered in comparison to Sean Penn‘s 1991 drama “The Indian Runner,” which examined another family’s struggles against a similarly economically straitened backdrop. That earlier film took more time establishing the fraternal dynamic that leads to tragedy, he argued.
“Cooper is undeniably talented, and especially so when it comes to working with his cast, but his new film’s ambition is not equaled by its accomplishment,” McWeeny wrote.
In a favorable assessment, Indie Wire’s Charlie Schmidlin wrote that Bale contributes some of his best and most understated work and noted that Cooper has a gift for storytelling. However, he argued that the film got derailed as it hurtled towards its violent conclusion.
“Cooper garners a range of well-executed, tense setpieces and a fantastic cast to pull them off, but one feels that towards its bloody finish, ‘Out of the Furnace’ concerns itself more with creating a complexity rather than letting its characters show us one,” Schmidlin wrote.
The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy noted that we’ve seen this particular story before, but there’s still plenty — from the production design to the work of the star-studded cast — to keep viewers engaged. He saved particular commendation for Harrelson’s work as a brutal hillbilly.
“In the meaty bad guy role, Harrelson entertainingly goes all the way, putting him way out there on the ledge with any of your favorite loonies, psychos and unhinged nutjobs; he’s got something considerably more profane tattooed on his hands than Robert Mitchum did in ‘The Night of the Hunter,'” McCarthy wrote.
It was Variety’s Scott Foundas who was the most enthusiastic in his assessment of the film’s merits, likening “Out of the Furnace” to an Iraq War era bookend to “The Deer Hunter,” another look at poverty-stricken men of action.
“A much darker and less audience-friendly package than Cooper’s Oscar-winning 2009 debut, ‘Crazy Heart,’ but graced by the same lyrical sense of worn-down American lives, this slow-burning drama should earn deserved praise for the top-drawer performances of stars Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and a truly frightening Woody Harrelson,” Foundas wrote.