Director: Scott Cooper
Studio: Appian Way
Stars: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck
Out of the Furnace has a lot on its mind, most of it muddled, faux Deer Hunter-style grim, and certainly way more than its makers are ready to handle. Set in the brutally ravaged post-“Hope and Change” rust belt ruins of Pennsylvania, the movie offers Christian Bale and Casey Affleck as sons of a widowed steelworker going down slowly and painfully in his in-home hospital bed. The movie's whole setup ought to be—or, at least, tries hard to be—something worthy of being set to Springsteen cuts from, say, Nebraska or Darkness on the Edge of Town. But the movie that follows is too schematic and rambling to earn that brilliant, despairing level of insight; instead it’s got Pearl Jam moaning and wailing almost comically.
It's obvious that the movie’s going to wallow in misery porn, what with Bale wearing his hair stringy and greasy and mumbling his dialogue between a mangy mustache and beard. You know, like almost all blue-collar guys do in the movies. After serving jail time for a nightmarish car accident, Bale gets released and Affleck, messed up and desperate, returns from his fourth tour of duty in Iraq, hot to make a financial killing. While Bale tries to get his brother back on track, the hotblood gets himself deep in debt to his backwoods bookie, played by Willem Dafoe. In a movie in which plot points are programmed to go from rotten to worse, Affleck is soon fighting bare-knuckle back-alley New Jersey death brawls and tangling with a crystal meth kingpin played with highly entertaining loon appeal by Woody Harrelson. Harrelson is so good, so menacing, that you wish his role were written a cut above the standard psycho thug. Finally, more and more tragic events unleash Bale’s rather dopey, ill-defined character on a vengeance spree, a payback payoff suitable for a 1970s drive-in triple feature. But at least that section of the flick has drive, energy and zip.
Still, Out of the Furnace gets at something scalding and painful in scenes like a kitchen confrontation between Bale and Affleck, in which the latter heartbreakingly confesses the toll that military service has taken. But the movie, directed and cowritten with Brad Inglesby by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), is also frustratingly thin and contrived, saddling Zoe Saldana with a standard-issue girlfriend role and Forest Whitaker with the part of the slow and steady local lawman. You might find yourself wishing that American moviemakers were allowed to tackle this kind of thing more often. You might also find yourself wishing that it were done much, much better.