Editor’s note: Our review of Out of the Furnace originally ran during this year’s AFI Fest, but we’re re-posting it now as the film opens in theatrical release.
Sometimes it seems like the future is rapidly approaching, with more and more information being digitally consumed and smartphones attached to the palm of almost everyone’s hand, but there are still places that are untouched by time, where family and community are paramount. It may seem like a simpler life, but Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace shows just how difficult life in an industrial community on the decline can be.
Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) are two brothers trying to carve out fulfilling lives for themselves in the wake of hard times and the deteriorating health of their father. Russell is a good man who seems content to work hard for his family and his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana), but Rodney is more of a loose canon. As a solider recently called back for another tour overseas, the younger Baze brother is wrestling with some serious demons.
Russell is clearly the rock of the Baze clan, but after a bad decision lands him in prison, he helplessly watches the life he was trying to build up fall apart in his absence. The life he returns to looks the same, but the people in it are different or gone. And with little left besides Rodney, Russell becomes focused on his brother and the troubled and dangerous world he’s gotten himself involved in.
Bale and Affleck have an easy relationship and chemistry that makes them seem like real brothers, with Bale yet again proving he is the master at conveying a monologue’s worth of emotion in a single brooding look. Unfortunately, outside of a few flashbacks of the two as children — a sequence that is featured much too late in the film — it is difficult to understand the true depth of their bond. It is clear the two love each other unconditionally, but Russell seems intent on moving his life forward while Rodney seems unable to do so.
Cooper implements powerful moments of juxtaposition between the two, such as Russell fixing up their father’s house while Rodney throws himself into an underground boxing ring to be broken and beaten down. When Russell drives into the woods to go deer hunting with their uncle Red (Sam Shepard), Rodney drives north to box in a hornet’s nest led by Curtis DeGroat (a terrifyingly unhinged performance by Woody Harrelson) and puts a target on his own back. The quiet scenes between Bale and Shepard and the electric scenes between Bale and Harrelson are some of the best in the film and show how the film can truly sing when all the elements successfully come together.
When Rodney goes missing, Russell becomes intent on finding him and bringing those responsible to justice, but this turn is also where Out of the Furnace begins to lose it’s footing on the tone it is trying to convey. Russell is a calm, logical man who can still smile at Lena even after she has moved on, making his turn into a vigilante feel sudden and very out of character. Saldana is sadly under-utilized, as is Forest Whitaker, playing a local cop who seems to overly involve himself in the Baze family’s life. Affleck ends up chewing the scenery, particularly in a climatic fight with Russell that ends up coming across as more comical than pivotal.
Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi captures the stripped down look of the Rust Belt full of muted colors and successfully highlights the beautiful underbelly of the Northeast, but Dickon Hinchliffe’s tension-filled, bluegrass-inspired score never feels aggressive enough to accompany the raw, gritty nature of the narrative. Cooper and Brad Ingelsby attempt to craft a script that shows the struggles of the working class, but it never feels fully realized. There are good ideas here driven by captivating performances, but the point seems to fade out when it should be crashing in.
The Upside: Beautiful imagery; strong performances from Bale and Harrelson; some stand out scenes that are well worth watching.
The Downside: An underwhelming score; Affleck seems misdirected while Saldana and Whitaker feel like afterthoughts; a narrative that never seems to hit the high notes despite having all the pieces in place to do so.
On the Side: Eddie Vedder wrote new songs for the film, but after a creative decision from Cooper, the film only features a re-recording of “Release,” from Pearl Jam‘s 1991 album Ten.