This film was one that somewhat interested me because of its stars. Christian Bale is one of the best actors in the world and somehow manages to be under-appreciated. Woody Harrelson is also an excellent actor who excels at playing antagonistic characters. And Willem Dafoe, who has one of the greatest faces in film history, is also a fantastic actor, even though that face sometimes limits what roles he can play. It only got middling reviews and sank from theaters relatively quickly, so I just finally got to it.
The film is a fairly simple revenge drama. Many films follow this formula: Sympathetic characters have a hard life. Bad dude/group kills one sympathetic character. Other sympathetic character goes in search of blood and justice. Out of the Furnace is one of those films, and it doesn’t deviate one bit from the expectation of the formula.
The one thing that’s really odd about Out of the Furnace is that it’s structured almost like the brilliant and tragically-underseen Seppuku (Masaki Kobayashi, Japan 1962) (The absolute apotheosis of the revenge drama. Anyone who disagrees with that either has not seen Seppuku or is insane.) in that the actual avenging action takes place only at the very end of the film. However, Seppuku can get away with concentrating its action like that because it has so much story before then and it is, after all, primarily a flashback story. Out of the Furnace instead spends about half of its run time just setting up the sympathetic lead characters.
Russell Blaze is a steel mill worker in a small town. He seems to have little ambition in life, “just living his life” as John Petty says. His brother, Rodney, is a broken Iraq veteran who has tried to drown out his own pain by hooking up with the local hoodlum, John Petty, in a bare knuckle fighting ring that’s actually a complete scam. Russell covers Rodney’s debts and takes care of him as the brothers watch their father slowly die. Then, Russell drives drunk and hits a woman and child in a station wagon, landing in prison. When he gets out, Rodney is deeper into the fighting than ever and begging Petty to call a nutcase he knows named Harlan DeGroat and set up a big money fight for Rodney to throw. Rodney of course eventually gets his wish and ends up dead, with DeGroat killing him and Petty over an outstanding debt. And all of that is before we get to the heart of the film, which is Russell getting his torturous, bloody revenge on DeGroat.
Not only is the structure an issue, but the film also has a problem in that it is very confused about its point. It is ultimately a tale of men who are held prisoner by their pasts–Russell by his vehicular homicide, Rodney by his experiences in Iraq, Petty by his relationship with DeGroat, etc.–but it doesn’t seem to have a point to make about their being held prisoner. Instead, the closest thing the film has to a unifying point is the idea that the United States uses up people like Russell and Rodney and locks them into lives that they cannot escape. Rodney even says, “I gave my life for this country, and what has it ever done for me?!” However, Russell doesn’t appear to be unhappy before he decides to drive drunk and ends up in prison, so it’s difficult to explain how his thread has anything to do with that point. So, we end up with a film that’s trying to use themes instead of points, which is a cardinal sin in filmmaking.
Visually, Cooper and Masanoku Takayanagi provide a competent but hardly original film. It’s dark and filled with oranges and monochromatic scene after monochromatic scene. They show no willingness to use camera movement, changes in color and lighting, or angles to enhance the film visually beyond where the story can carry it.
Where this film does shine, to the extent that it does, is unsurprisingly with the performances. Christian Bale is always great, and the depth of his range is really astounding. To think that the man who played Patrick Bateman and Alfred Borden could be this pathetic, sympathetic guy with no ambition for anything beyond a manual labor job in his small town simply boggles the mind, and he is frankly the best thing in the film. Woody Harrelson doesn’t have much to do, just setting his jaw and shouting angrily, but he does that well. Willem Dafoe manages to be understandable and even somewhat sympathetic in a very under-written role, giving it a depth that it simply doesn’t have without his performance. Casey Affleck is (somewhat surprisingly) fine in a somewhat ham-handed role. Forest Whitaker managed to be slightly less annoying than he usually is, toning down his usual pleading with the audience to love him, though he also seemed to be doing a vocal impersonation of Dennis Green throughout the film that was distracting and odd.
Overall, Out of the Furnace is a film that’s trying to make more points than it can and trying to create a deeper story than a film has time to craft. The performances are good and the characters are deep enough to allow a lot of the actors to dig in well, but that’s really all there is that’s worthwhile about the film, and it’s just not enough to carry it.
- Interesting to see Zoe Saldana not green. It’s actually surprising to me just how different she looks. She’s pretty sexy in Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, USA 2014), but wow she is gorgeous in this. (I had seen her once before, in Star Trek [J.J. Abrams, USA 2009], but I really don’t remember thinking much of anything about her.)
- There seem to be an abnormal number of movie and television scenes that involve guys who try to stop domestic violence getting an ass-beating for it. I wonder if that reflects something about Hollywood’s attitude toward that type of Good Samartan-ism.
- This film shared some real similarities with The Indian Runner (Sean Penn, USA 1991), which made Casey Affleck’s fine-but-not-special performance feel worse. Viggo Mortensen is really, really good in that. Interestingly, Mortensen was apparently approached about Woody Harrelson’s role in this film.