Review: Out of the Furnace

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Braddock, Pennsylvania is an ideal metaphorical setting for the dawn of the recession in the fall of 2008. A steel mill town in decades of decay, Braddock’s Rust Belt image is the setting for Out of the Furnace, director Scott Cooper’s follow up to 2009’s Crazy Heart. Its dilapidated neighborhoods, weathered residents and oxidized furnaces signal a town in a downward spiral. It is that dark path that the characters of Out of the Furnace find themselves pursuing, but to what end? That is less a question that the film itself poses, but rather, one that should be asked of the film. Out of the Furnace has a lot on its mind, and its ensemble provides several good performances, but its tentative, underdeveloped plotting and lack of focus keep it from having any meaning.

Russell and Rodney Baze (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, respectively) are a tight knit pair of brothers. Having grown up in Braddock all their lives, their pursuits are solely blue collar. Russell takes after his father by working in the steel mill while living with his girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana). Rodney is an Iraq War veteran, recently stop-lossed and on his way back to the Middle East in a month. Stubborn and down on his cash, Rodney fights in a local underground ring run by John Petty (Willem Dafoe). One night, Russell is on his way home from the bar after expecting to meet up with his brother when he slams into another vehicle, immediately killing the driver and passengers. Russell is sent to jail, parting with his brother who ships off to Iraq. After an indeterminate amount of time, Russell is once again free, but when he reunites with Rodney, everything has changed. Their father has passed away, and Lena has left him for a local cop, Chief Wesley Barnes (Forrest Whitaker). Further, Rodney has come back a different man, insulted by the idea of “working for a living” in comparison to the horrors and sacrifices he witnessed overseas. Rodney makes one last ditch effort to pursue a fight again, and finds himself face to face with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), the primary terror of the Appalachians. When Rodney goes missing, Russell takes matters into his own hands, searching for his brother when the police will not.

Clearly, there’s a wealth of plot to chew on here, as well as an abundance of potentially provocative thematic content, but Out of the Furnace never follows through on the promises it makes. The film’s conflict doesn’t kick into full gear until a half hour passes, and even then, its hard to get a feel for director Cooper’s narrative intentions. This indecision keeps the drama of the film from fully blooming, as it lurches from scene to scene without a complete sense of cohesion. Granted, all of the primary cast give good performances, but only a few feel like fully fleshed out people. Christian Bale and Casey Affleck are both utterly convincing as brothers, and the unspoken history between the two is visible in their interactions. However, neither Russell nor Rodney develop much throughout the course of the film, or if they did, their transformations never carried across. The remainder of the characters are underdeveloped and not particularly interesting, even if the expressive faces of Harrelson, Dafoe and Saldana suggest there’s more to them than what was was written in the script.

For all of its character and narrative flaws, Out of the Furnace showcases Braddock in all of its forest greens and oxidized rust. There’s a definite textural quality to the town that Cooper and his crew capture here that feels authentic to the region, bolstered by Bale’s commitment to a Western Pennsylvanian accent. The palpable atmospherics, however, cannot bolster the film’s thin narrative. Out of the Furnace touches on a number of compelling thematic avenues, be it the strength of family bonds, the return of military veterans, or the collapse of working class America, but it declines each opportunity it gets to mine them further. The film feels content with simply acknowledging these complex topics rather than investigating them, thus becoming uncertain of what it really wants to assert. Scott Cooper certainly seems intent on presenting something important and profound, but save for a few gems in performances, his hunt is largely fruitless.

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~ by romancinema on December 7, 2013.

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