"Out of the Furnace" is a visually striking film. It makes you feel chilled to the bone, not only by the Rust Belt Pennsylvania setting, but with its dark and violent subject matter. The acting of Christian Bale and Casey Affleck is superb, and Woody Harrelson obviously has come a long way from doofus bartender on "Cheers" to one of the best sneering bad guys in Hollywood. And the supporting cast is first-rate.
So what happened?
It feels like someone -- director Scott Cooper co-wrote the film with Brad Ingelsby, and Ridley Scott produced it -- opted to take the path of least resistance here, with a story that lacks any real surprises and fails to fully explore some of the meaty themes it touches on.
"Furnace" is about a pair of blue-collar brothers, steelworker Russell Baze (Bale) and just-returned Iraq War veteran Rodney Baze Jr. (Affleck). Rodney is trying to get by with bare-knuckle boxing matches in lieu of getting a job at the steel mill, which he blames for their father's death. He gets in deep with a local bookie (played by the always intense Willem Dafoe) and, in a desperate move, heads to fight in rural New Jersey, where the action is run by Curtis DeGroat (a sleazy and just-crazy-enough Harrelson). Rodney disappears, and local police seem helpless to do anything about it (Forest Whitaker plays the local police chief, in a role too small for his talent), prompting Russell to take matters into his own hands.
Set in 2008, "Furnace" features acting good enough that you actually can feel the misery in which the characters are drenched. Affleck is occasionally explosive, especially in a scene where he talks about his experiences overseas. But the performances (highlighted by plenty of close-ups and a minimal amount of intrusive music), the stark scenery and the effective dark mood can't stop the film from going on autopilot at the point in which Russell decides to go save his brother. The plot from there goes straight where one would expect, without a twist or turn in sight. Opportunities to dig into topics such as post-traumatic stress disorder and the shrinking blue-collar American landscape are wasted. Even the early relationship between Russell and Lena (Zoe Saldana), which ends when Russell goes to prison after a fatal DUI accident, feels underexplored.
Bug-eyed Harrelson owns the screen whenever he appears, a wild contrast to the brooding, cool Bale (who is nothing less than his usual convincing self). But Harrelson's strong performance also highlights the holes in his character's back story. How did he come to rule his fighting/meth-dealing empire? How did he come to be the way he is? (The movie's stunningly violent opening scene, during which DeGroat shows that he doesn't do dating very well, explains a little of this.)
There are a couple moments near the end when there's just enough suspense to make you briefly hold your breath. But it's not enough to save a missed opportunity. Ultimately, there just isn't enough of a story to support all that talent on screen.
Contact Tony Hicks at Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.TonyHicks or Twitter.m/insertfoot.
'OUT OF THE FURNACE'
Rating: R (for strong violence, language
and drug content)
Cast: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Sam
Shepard, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes