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AFI Fest Review: 'Out Of The Furnace' Starring Christian Bale, Casey Affleck & Woody Harrelson

by Charlie Schmidlin
November 10, 2013 12:20 PM
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In telling the story of a fundamentally decent man's descent into violence and retribution, Scott Cooper's “Out of the Furnace” plants its cues of chilly neo-noir in the claustrophobic corners of America's Rust Belt, and then nearly gets away with its own high-minded meditations. Loyalty and consequence collide in the “Crazy Heart” director's sophomore feature (from Cooper's rewrite of a script originally by Brad Inglesby), but while those themes eventually result in payoffs that are noticeably muted and confused, the film is luckily powered by a powerful trio of performances at its core, and a unique, unpredictable structure that constantly reframes the action in a compelling way.

What seems like five years pass in the film's first 30 minutes, and it makes a point to show that the change being touted on the 2008-based television screen hasn't come—or if it has, it's for the worse. In the economically dire steel town of Braddock, Penn., Russell Baze (Christian Bale) enjoys a modest life toiling in the mill during the day, before returning to his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) and also paying visits to his sick father at night. More prone to reside in the local off-track betting parlor is Russell's brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a fidgety young man who opted for military life over the mills, and now faces a “stop-loss” order for a fourth tour in Iraq. The two brothers are close, but you feel it's a relationship based more on one-sided financial dependence, at least initially.

As Russell drives home from the bar one night, he T-bones a reversing car pulling out and kills all inside, including children; the drunken manslaughter charge condemns him to a brutal prison stay while Rodney witnesses his own horrors overseas. When years later the siblings finally reunite—sunken-eyed, tattooed, and with news of their father's death—both are hollow and degraded, but only one is still optimistic.

Cooper shoots these leaps in time with a tremendously assured eye for storytelling, as he and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (“The Grey”) use their stark 35mm palette to capture subtle changes in the town's declining upkeep, or to survey the stolid faces of his lead actors for narrative background. Bale's lingering look back upon the prison when he's released says more about his stay than any flashback, while Affleck—without his character saying a word of his actions in Iraq (which he eventually does reveal)—restlessly thunders around the small town with a barely contained fury.

Unbeknownst to Russell while he was in prison, Rodney's rage is now funneled into a bare-knuckle boxing career organized by a slimy bookie (Willem Dafoe, naturally), but it's eclipsed by that of Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a ruthless, meth-dealing hillbilly who deals with Dafoe from the backwoods of New Jersey. Seen stuffing a cigar down his drive-in date's throat in the opening scene, Harrelson commands the screen with an unrelenting stare and progressively brutal methods of getting his way. He is, at first, nothing but an oppressive force of evil, and as he devises a match with Dafoe for Rodney to take a dive, the question of just how many more genre tropes can fit into a single narrative emerges.

However, the film's knowledge of its genre boundaries proves its most interesting element, which in turn enables such quality performances from the stellar cast. As fatalistic ciphers their arcs are fairly clear, but the instinctive, measured way in which Cooper treats each conventional story beat—prolonged enormously in some cases, simply a brief scene in others—surprises you with its execution.

Bale embodies Russell with perhaps his most unshowy performance to date, letting his drawled lines fall from his mouth with a trembling smile as matters quickly turn grim—a scene between him and Saldana (who otherwise gains little traction in her role) as he realizes their new relationship after prison is especially affecting. He and Affleck also share some finely tuned exchanges that highlight the binary oppression of their lives, where the prospect of legitimate work starts with the mill and strays little elsewhere.

Perhaps the most understated and enigmatic contribution though is from Sam Shepard, playing Red, the brothers' uncle that grows closer to the family once Russell gets out of prison. As a positive influence in the siblings' lives he is a symbol of stoic responsibility, but watch his face as he and Bale infiltrate a crack den later on in the story, and you see a glint of his most savage tendencies that makes you wish Cooper had devoted more time to that aspect.

Unfortunately, Shepard is not the last time Cooper will move on from an important facet, especially in the film's rather staid and meandering third act. The powerful surge of inevitability built up in the first half transfers into a decidedly different film in the second; it becomes less of a character piece, and more of an obtuse thematic effort that too often feels like it's masking its rougher edges in ambiguity (and an admittedly excellent Dickon Hinchliffe score). Cooper garners a range of well-executed, tense setpieces and a fantastic cast to pull them off, but one feels that towards its bloody finish, “Out of the Furnace” concerns itself more with creating a complexity rather than letting its characters show us one. [B]

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  • eddie lydecker | November 24, 2013 4:47 PMReply

    Bale is rubbish simply because he is British.

  • Freida | November 19, 2013 9:34 PMReply

    Saw it tonight, this review and reviewer are spot-on. It's got solid performances, but it's really lacking something and leaves you wanting more.

  • MovieJay | November 14, 2013 9:29 PMReply

    It was a hot dog, not a cigar!

  • Frank | November 13, 2013 8:55 PMReply

    Why all the Schmidlin hate? ALL critics are sho-biz bottom-feeders. (Lookin right atcha, Leonard Maltin!)

  • cari | November 12, 2013 10:01 AMReply

    Charlie Schmidlin comes off as a reviewer who is more impressed with his own verbosity than he is in giving a real review. His writing seems to detract from any meaning he may be trying to convey. It's broken, unintelligible, uninspired, boring, and inconsistent at the very least. I am surprised he has won any awards. This review sounds more like he just graduated college and is just trying to impress...himself.

  • Harrison | November 12, 2013 12:51 AMReply

    I was at the premiere and overall thought this was a very very good movie. Not a critic or reviewer but if pressed I'd say it's one of the better films I've seen this year.

    My main criticism, which I think this review hits on a bit, is that the whole thing felt a bit too compressed in parts. I honestly think this is the rare film that could've benefitted from being 15 minutes longer! Would love to see a director's cut when it gets to DVD, if there is one.

  • BRUCE WAYNE | November 10, 2013 10:30 PMReply

    S P O I L E R S

  • bob | November 10, 2013 2:40 PMReply

    kill yourself schmidlin

  • Bitter Fans Whine | November 10, 2013 2:00 PMReply

    More like pretty bitter/hilarious fan comments, lol.

  • Franka | November 10, 2013 10:53 PM

    Classic, classic Internet fanboy pathetic retarded behavior. None of these people have actually seen the film, but because this writer gave it a review that's less than perfect, they're sh*tting on him. I like Bale and am hoping this is good too, but grow the f*ck up.

  • Amanda | November 10, 2013 2:38 PM

    Yeah, I agree. It's a totally fair review and gives it tons of praise in certain areas. CB is crying. Same with James F that basically has to look at more positive reviews to discredit it. Oldest fanboy whiner trick in the book.

  • CB | November 10, 2013 2:33 PM


  • CB | November 10, 2013 1:25 PMReply

    Typical, bitter wanna-be-filmmaker-I-would-have-directed-the-film-differently-review.

  • James F | November 10, 2013 1:25 PMReply

    What a mediocre review (from a writing point of view)! Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Kris Tapley, etc. are calling this the 21st century version of The Deer Hunter.

  • MovieJay | November 14, 2013 9:51 PM

    I saw this film this week and if this is the 21st century version of The Deer Hunter, than I didn't see it.

    Just because you photograph a steel town well doesn't put it in league with that great movie. I really liked the acting, but I'm not so sure what the heck this movie was trying to say. I feel that "Place Beyond the Pines" was a lot more focused on how it dealt with the topic of men, family, loyalty, and what path you choose to take in your life. This movie isn't as much about choices as it seems to be about some inevitability about our lives that is somehow out of our control, which was hard for me to give into.

  • CB | November 10, 2013 2:33 PM

    That makes two films openly influenced by The Deer Hunter.

  • yer | November 10, 2013 2:00 PM

    Every movie gets described as being 'The Deer Hunter'. Just last year The Place Behind the Pines was 'The Deer Hunter'.

  • cary | November 10, 2013 1:21 PMReply

    Didn't see the movie yet but I doubt this is Bale's "most unshowy performance to date". People tend to remember him for louder performances (American Psycho, The Fighter) but quieter, nuanced role is where he truly excels (3:10 to Yuma, The New World, Public Enemies).

  • oogle monster | November 10, 2013 3:59 PM

    Cary- thanks for bringing up The New World... in my opinion, that is THE best Christian Bale performance. He is tremendous in other roles but he killed it in The New World.

  • Charlie | November 10, 2013 2:05 PM

    I agree that Bale is oftentimes remembered more for his louder performances, but seeing him in the "American Hustle" clip the night before just cemented my appreciation for his work on either side of the spectrum. You brought up "3:10 To Yuma" though, and that's not a bad marker for where he's at with "Furnace".

  • Ash | November 10, 2013 12:57 PMReply

    thanks for the review!
    didn't mention Casey tho...

  • Yebs | November 11, 2013 4:35 PM

    Apparently some of the characters are thin as hell. The Wrap and Film School Rejects have both complained here. It sounds like they are tools to a means to an ends instead of characters.

  • HMM | November 11, 2013 4:13 PM


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