December 6, 2013



OUT OF THE FURNACE:  Watch It At Home – Dark Thriller Is Less Weighty Than It Thinks

A great deal of heart and effort has gone into OUT OF THE FURNACE, and it’s disappointing to see the film resolve itself into little more than a fairly routine revenge melodrama, even though director Scott Cooper (he previously wrote and directed Crazy Heart) and his co-writer Brad Ingelsby evidently think they’ve created something more meaningful than that.

The basic concept is Winter’s Bone crossed with so much of the non-Vietnam parts of The Deer Hunter that Michael Cimino may be owed a royalty.  We are, once again, in a Pennsylvania steel town where the stand-in DeNiro character is Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a strong, rooted, inwardly focused man who knows what it is to be a man (he hunts deer, but when face-to-face with the grandeur of one of the beasts, he lowers his rifle and lets it go).  Russell is unintentionally responsible for a tragedy early in the story, and he has to pay the price and leave his town for some time; when he returns, the pure-hearted schoolteacher love of his life, Lena (Zoe Saldana as the Meryl Streep analogue) has gone to another, local sheriff Wesley (Forest Whitaker, with an odd vocal choice).  With Lena gone, Russell’s main point of connection with the world is his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), whose circuits were blown by the things he saw in Vietnam Afghanistan.  Rodney is too prideful to settle for working at the mill, and instead throws himself into dangerous Russian Roulette bare-knuckle fighting, where his pride makes it difficult for him to throw the fights he needs to in order to pay off his debts to local bar-owner and low-level operator Petty (Willem Dafoe).  Eventually, Rodney’s financial problems bring him to fight for Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), an unstable, sociopathic meth dealer (and user) who runs his part of the backwoods New Jersey hill country like a fiefdom.  The Winter’s Bone part of the story kicks in when Rodney goes missing and Russell has to travel to DeGroat’s territory in an effort to find him.

It’s at this point the viewer starts to realize that Out Of the Furnace is less ambitious than pretentious, and that for all its earnestness, it’s been borrowing pieces of better films without understanding what made them great.  While the web of meth cookers and their families that Jennifer Lawrence’s character encounterd in Winter’s Bone when she searched for her father were scary and violent, they were layered individuals who lived by a code and mixed mercy with brutality.  DeGroat has no more humanity than the Vietnamese who forced Christopher Walken to play Russian Roulette in Deer Hunter.  And although one can debate just how deep Cimino’s film went in the end, it had a tragic grandeur and a genuine vision of American heartbreak that gave it power.  Once Russell is stalking DeGroat with his deer rifle–after an earlier sequence intercut Rodney being battered in the ring with Russell and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) skinning and butchering a deer Red shot–Furnace‘s symbolism about masculinity, America and violence is so thick that the characters can barely be seen through it.

None of this feels cynical; Cooper and his actors are sincerely committed to depicting and inhabiting this millieu and imparting some deeper wisdom.  But the depth of Out Of the Furnace only goes as far as the grime that’s been caked onto its movie stars–it’s a B-movie that thinks it’s an epic.  While Winter’s Bone told you more about its setting and its people with every new scene, Furnace tells you less.

Christian Bale’s work in this and next week’s American Hustle is so spectacularly contrasting that the two parts could serve as a career highlight reel, but his limitation as an actor has always been a darkness that’s also somehow blank; that worked well for Batman, but playing a variant of DeNiro in The Deer Hunter is just a reminder that, as serious and skilled an actor as he is, he’s not DeNiro at his 1970s best.  Affleck contributes the jittery, not-quite-in-control mannerisms that he brings to many of his roles, just as Sam Shepard provides his dose of stolid rural manhood.  Woody Harrelson seems just a great scene or two from being a revelation–he has one bit where he injects himself with meth between his toes that’s terrifying and exhilarating at the same time–but Cooper and Ingelsby short-change him, and DeGroat is never anything but a monster.  Dafoe, and Tom Bower as the town bartender, provide some sparks of character, while Saldana and Whitaker are the movie’s gentrified characters, more noble than interesting.

Out Of the Furnace is extremely well-crafted, with mournful, gritty photography by Masanobu Tagayanagi (he shot The Grey and the thematically similar Warrior) and production design by Therese DePrez, as well as an atmospheric score by Dickon Hinchliffe, who actually composed the music for Winter’s Bone.  Everyone who worked on the film did so with great seriousness.  They’re unable, however, to give Furnace the richness that it just doesn’t have.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."