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Christian Bale in the Brutal, Steel-Town Drama 'Out Of The Furnace'

Photo of Caryn James By Caryn James | James on Screens December 4, 2013 at 8:59AM

In Steve McQueen's artful 12 Years a Slave and Peter Berg's fraught Lone Survivor (opening soon), the violence is difficult to sit through, but worth it for those films' serious drama and wrenching realism. Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace doesn't come close to justifying its extreme brutality. This story of two brothers -- Christian Bale and Casey Affleck -- pushed to violence in a Pennsylvania steel town is so overwrought that their problems seem orchestrated by Screenwriting 101 rather than fate.
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Out of the Furnace

In Steve McQueen's artful 12 Years a Slave and Peter Berg's fraught Lone Survivor (opening soon), the violence is difficult to sit through, but worth it for those films' serious drama and wrenching realism. Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace doesn't come close to justifying its extreme brutality. This story of two brothers  -- Christian Bale and Casey Affleck -- pushed to violence in a Pennsylvania steel town is so overwrought that their problems seem orchestrated by Screenwriting 101 rather than fate. The writers, Cooper and Brad Ingelsby, may have started with a sincere desire to tell the story of working-class people crushed by a changing world, but as they pile on the Important Themes, Out of the Furnace quickly becomes more pretentious than ambitious.

The film begins with its least necessary character:  Woody Harrelson as a psychotic drug dealer, Harlan DeGroat (even his name, like the movie's title, sounds contrived), who beats up his date at a drive-in, pretty much on a whim. His shady business dealings take him to Willem Dafoe, playing the second least necessary character: John Petty, a small-time loan shark who takes advantage of Rodney Baze (Affleck) -- and finally we're getting to a main character.

Rodney is a psychologically damaged veteran of the Iraq war, whom Petty puts in illegal boxing matches. Russell (Bale), Rodney's more responsible brother, works diligently in the mill where their now-dying father did, and does everything he can to bail his brother out of trouble, until an accidental misstep (another plot contrivance) sends his own life temporarily off course.

Just as he did in The Machinist, for which he lost more than 60 pounds to play a delusional loner, here Bale gives a totally dedicated performance in a film that doesn't deserve it. Without spoiling the plot, we can still say that Bale is so nuanced and affecting that your heart truly breaks for Russell, a man trying so, so hard -- to be there for his father and his brother and his girlfriend, to work every day in a mill he knows is likely to close, to walk into a future with hardly any prospects -- who does not get a single break in his life.  

The family story might have been enough, enhanced by Sam Shepard, who gives an eloquently understated performance as Rodney and Russell's uncle. But Cooper won't settle for anything as weighty and genuine as post-war trauma and economic collapse. Instead, Rodney gets embroiled with the madman DeGroat. Harrelson snarls his way through the performance, and has rarely been so over-the-top or unconvincing. Soon there is more violence, murder and vengeance, as the film spirals so far out of control that it feels like a blood-soaked vigilante movie masquerading as a thoughtful indie.



Out of the Furnace affirms two things we saw in Cooper's first film, Crazy Heart. He is not exactly original, and quick to borrow from better movies. Just as Crazy Heart echoes Tender Mercies (with nothing to suggest homage), in Out of the Furnace the damaged vets, mill-town ambience and subdued colors evoke The Deer Hunter. But, as with Bales here and Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, he can inspire actors to give him everything.

Too bad that isn't enough to elevate Out of the Furnace. A substantial film was probably lurking inside this overloaded, overcalculated mess. 

This article is related to: Christian Bale, Out of the Furnace, Reviews, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Scott Cooper, Sam Shepard, Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges, 12 Years a Slave, Lone Survivor, Steve McQueen, Peter Berg

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