I applaud filmmakers who portray harsh reality in movies, but during the holiday season, it’s an especially bitter pill to swallow. Such is the case with “Out of the Furnace,” the sophomore offering from “Crazy Heart” screenwriter/director Scott Cooper. (He cowrote “Out of the Furnace” with Brad Ingelsby.)
The cast is all-star and top-notch, including Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard. They all turn in excellent performances based on what they’re given.
Bale plays a Pennsylvania steel worker who actually does work in a furnace. Affleck is his brother – a lost soul who has returned from several tours in Iraq and doesn’t know what to do with himself except get into trouble.
Harrelson plays an evil character unlike any he has played before – a New Jersey backwoods type (I didn’t know they existed) who is a meth addict all about making money and killing anybody who happens to sneeze in his direction. When these three come into each other’s lives, the results are, of course, tragic.
I liked the naturalistic dialogue and look of the film. That made it easy to believe I was watching real people in these circumstances. Cooper and his team also successfully made the pretty people look ordinary enough.
Unfortunately, the movie’s structure and dramatic arc didn’t quite work for me. It will be difficult to discuss all of this without major spoilers, so I’ll have to write in somewhat cryptic terms.
Early on in the narrative, Bale’s character does something that lands him in prison. There are no interim scenes between that event and his time in jail, so we are given no details as to how his incarceration transpired.
Yet, inexplicably, later in the story, we are treated to entirely too much detail – so much so that it drags down any suspense that might have been generated. At least three times, I felt that suspense was built, only to be dropped like a hot potato.
Finally, there is a denouement, but there are elements of this scene that I found perplexing. Bale, as the central character, chooses to make his life more difficult than it already is. He is in a position to make everything easier for himself while still accomplishing his goal, but no, that isn’t what he decides to do.
Then, the final shot is an absolute puzzle. We have no idea what happened to the character after the final events. What are we left with? A starkly realistic, utterly humorless (I think I laughed once) portrait of people in certain circumstances and a sense of hopelessness that made me want to leave the theater and go straight to the bar.
Do I recommend it? Well, only if you love these actors and this type of film. It’s violent, and it’s hard to take. It explores themes of economic decay, love and loyalty between brothers, and vigilantism.
Nevertheless, Bale and Affleck are especially fine in their roles. Bale, for my money, is becoming one of our most compelling and versatile actors. (Does he ever use the same accent in any two films?)
So, decide based on knowing that you’re in for a depressive story. For that reason alone, “Out of the Furnace” is hardly for everybody. If you’re looking for feel-good holiday fare, stick with something like “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.”
If “Out of the Furnace” sounds like your cup of tea, it opened in theaters on Dec. 6, 2013.