There are great things to admire about filmmaker Scott Cooper, who made an admirable breakthrough in 2009 when directed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar win for Crazy Heart. Adapting the film from the novel by Thomas Cobb, Cooper had a foundation to follow in bringing his story of Bad Blake to the screen. In his long-awaited follow-up Out of the Furnace, where he gathers an impressive cast that includes Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, and Woody Harrelson, the co-writer and director lays it on thick and slow, ultimately failing to sustain emotion to be carried throughout his picture.
Cooper’s latest tells the story of Russell Baze (played by Bale), a hard-working man who cares for his ailing father and lives with his beautiful girlfriend Lena (played by Zoe Saldana). When his war-veteran brother Rodney (played by Affleck) gets involved with illegal street-fighting and ultimately disappears, with no strong searching from authorities, Russell takes matters into his own hands.
Out of the Furnace begins with such strong promise. Building a solid foundation in character development, Cooper and co-writer Brad Inglesby give Russell and Rodney authentic behaviors and a relationship that feels believable. When dealing with the film’s villain Harlan DeGroat, played by the talented Woody Harrelson, the two scribes don’t explore enough avenues to have him become a three-dimensional character, and not a blanket of evil caricatures that we’ve seen in movies before. The film opens with Harlan watching a drive-in movie and unleashing his fury on his date, and a bystander that tries to intervene. I tend to appreciate some motivation for a character’s actions. You can’t just make someone horrible just for the sake of your movie. Why is Harlan so evil, and most of all, why is everyone so scared of this guy, even when he’s by himself?
Christian Bale internalizes most of his emotions, bringing them to the brim of explosion. His Russell is damaged, losing so much of himself throughout the narrative, from family members to his own dignity. It’s another great performance from the Oscar-winning Bale. Casey Affleck proves to be one of the most talented actors working today, bringing such raw rage to his broken soldier. He’s the film’s true highlight and most deserving of any accolades the film may receive.
Regulated to one very intense and brilliantly constructed scene with Bale, Zoe Saldana proves to have the goods to go beyond any of her genre roles in “Avatar” and “Star Trek” if given the opportunity. Woody Harrelson does his best with the information he’s given. He strikes fear into the viewer with just a look or a sneer, but with such little understanding about what Harlan is about, it doesn’t succeed in the way it should have. Sam Shepard and Forest Whitaker are blips on the radar but have no real sense of purpose to the narrative, though they are serviceable.
Cooper also does a great job capturing this rural culture of a small Pennsylvania town. Locals that work at the mill and later gather at the bar to drink their night away feels authentic. Utilizing Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi certainly helps as the talented DP keeps our story close and intimate. Takayanagi captures the entire rooms for the audience to gaze at. Intimate bedroom behavior is placed into perspective when aligned with a shot of the room where a closet is in sight with no doors and damp, dingy walls. The score by Dickon Hinchliffe is the film’s strongest technical aspect. The composer, who’s worked on Rampart and Winter’s Bone, has a knack for these types of films and elevating them to their true potential.
As the film continues to build, to what we believe will be an epic finale of revenge, just becomes the most anti-climactic ending of the year. While Cooper formulates a well-constructed set piece, and composer Hinchliffe and DP Takayanagi are well-equipped for the challenge, the script offers no interesting or payoff to the two-hour investment the audience makes into the story. We are left just mildly and unenthusiastically satisfied.
Overall, the film is simply atmospheric; showing the promise of Cooper has a filmmaker if given stronger material to direct. Out of the Furnace is a mildly impressive work but worth it’s time at the movie theater.
Out of the Furnace opens on December 6.