Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Out of the Furnace

Out of the Furnace (2013)
Dir. Scott Cooper

3 out of 5

Broad metaphorical strokes abound in Out of the Furnace, a hardscrabble blue collar drama about a steel mill worker named Russell Baze (Christian Bale) whose life is upended after a fatal drunk driving accident.  After stoically serving his time in prison, Russell spends most of the film as the embodiment of the ex-con with the heart of gold – painting windows, visiting his father’s grave, tearing up when his ex-girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) announces that she’s carrying another man’s baby.  Then, with director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) cranking the symbolism to a fever pitch, Russell lands the film’s haymaker: after quarrying a deer on a hunting trip, he stares deep into its eyes and refuses to pull the trigger.

How you respond to that sort of trope will likely determine how much you enjoy Out of the Furnace.  Granted, there is a lot to like on the film’s margins concerning Russell’s younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a down-and-out Iraq War veteran forced to support himself by taking dives in illegal boxing matches organized by local crime boss John Petty (Willem Dafoe).  Itching for a bigger payday, Rodney convinces a reluctant Petty to strike a deal with Harlan DeGroat (a quietly terrifying Woody Harrelson), a drug-running hillbilly with the influence and manpower to back up his violent reputation.

Still, Russell is the film’s narrative glue, and Cooper determinedly constructs the action around him.  Yet despite another intense, dark-night-of-the-soul performance from Bale, these scenes tend to sap the momentum built up by the course of events taking place far from him.  Placed in an impossible position by his brother’s carelessness and wondering whether to trade his personal freedom for his family’s redemption, Russell should be smoldering.  Instead, he simply thaws – a puzzling choice considering the prominence of the movie’s forge metaphor.
Though blessed with an excellent cast and a hauntingly-rendered setting courtesy of cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, Out of the Furnace’s eagerness to live up to awards-season expectations means it lacks in originality.  Cooper underutilizes Saldana and Forest Whitaker in a go-nowhere subplot, and has a tendency to lean on contrivances and misdirection in place of suspense.  (A misplaced cell phone is used in particularly groan-inducing fashion.)  Out of the Furnace turns things around in time to remain intriguing, but it plods along with a grim, fatalistic sense of purpose that undercuts a fine message about Russell’s struggle to exercise his free will.  “It doesn’t have to be like this” shouts one of the players in the climax – a notion made somewhat frustrating when the inevitability of its conclusion seems spelled out in big, bold letters.

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