Out of the Furnace Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson. Directed by Scott Cooper. Rated R. Opens Friday.
If you condense the plot of Out of the Furnace down to its basic elements, it sounds like something that would go straight to video and star Steven Seagal: A tough mill worker is released from prison and sets out to avenge his brother, a military veteran who’s been caught up in underground fight clubs in the backwoods of Appalachia. Furnace doesn’t star Steven Seagal, however; Christian Bale plays main character Russ Baze, and Casey Affleck plays his angry brother Rodney. The first half of the movie is a slow, ponderous character study of the troubled relationship between the two brothers, and it’s only after about an hour that the revenge storyline really comes into focus.
In a way, the movie might have worked better as a scuzzy thriller, because director and co-writer Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) refuses to allow anything resembling fun or excitement into the story, instead depicting every moment, whether it’s a soul-baring talk between Russ and his ex-girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) or a showdown between Rodney and white-trash villain Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), with the same oppressive seriousness. Cooper seems to want to make a profound statement about the hollowness of revenge or the struggles of the working class (Russ is facing unemployment with the impending closure of the mill; Rodney is adrift after four tours of duty overseas), but the movie has only the illusion of depth, with a washed-out color palette and angst-ridden performances standing in for thematic resonance and substantial character development.
Bale and Affleck try to outdo each other in the tortured-soul department, and Harrelson is a little cartoonish as one-note hick Harlan, who seems like he might have wandered in from a much more entertaining episode of FX’s Justified. The movie opens with a scene designed solely to demonstrate how cruel and sadistic Harlan is, and his over-the-top villainy never quite fits with the somber family story that Cooper is trying to tell with the rest of the movie. That somber family story isn’t particularly successful, either, although Bale and Affleck do have a few nice low-key moments together when they’re not over-emoting. Unfortunately, Cooper generally goes for stone-faced self-importance over low-key character interactions, with scenes (like the cross-cutting of Russ and his uncle hunting a deer with human characters being stalked through the woods) that traffic in portentous empty symbolism. At least cheap thrillers usually know when to let the action speak for itself.