There’s a great line in Almost Famous that gets at how I feel about Out of the Furnace. Early in the movie, Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is in a radio station and says to the DJ, “The Doors? Jim Morrison? He’s a drunken buffoon posing as a poet… Give me The Guess Who. They got the courage to be drunken buffoons, which makes them poetic.” Replace “drunken buffoon” with “pulp thriller,” and you’ll get what’s wrong with Out of Furnace. Striving for a big message about post-recession America, the material is too serious for its own good.
Director Scott Cooper begins with a moment of misogynistic violence. Harlan (Woody Harrelson) is a loathsome man who abuses his wife for no reason other than his own amusement, and he beats a good samaritan who tries to interrupt him. This opening has absolutely nothing to do with what follows, except establish Harrelson perfunctorily as an asshole.
The real focus is Russell (Christian Bale), a blue collar worker in a western Pennsylvania steel town. Russell loves his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana), but all that is taken away after a drunk driving accident. He goes to jail, and gets regular visits from his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an ex-veteran. After Ruseell’s parole, Rodney looks at his brother and their dying father and decides he doesn’t want that life, so he prefers underground boxing instead. With the help Petty (Willem Dafoe), a low-level criminal, he organizes a fixed fight with Harlan. But he doesn’t go down the way Harlan wants, and it’s up to Russell to pick up the pieces.
Cooper films the violence from a distance, as if he’s too scared to get his hands dirty. There’s no sense of suspense (or anything, really) when Rodney is in a fight or when Russell deals with Harlan. This is not a thriller, but a character drama posing as one. That would be fine, except all the major plot advancements unfold like a lost genre film from the 1970s. In fact, there are parts of the plot that simply don’t make sense. Petty repeatedly notes how Rodney cannot be trusted to take the fall, yet he and Harlan agree to fix a fight with him. I’m no gangster, but when it’s time to rig a boxing match, I think it’s best to look for the guy who’d rather get paid than preserve his pride. This plot wrinkle does not derail Out of the Furnance, exactly, yet it’s noticeable enough so that I’m disengaged from what happens.
Cooper and his co-screenwriter Ingelsby are at their strongest when it comes to character-driven drama. Affleck has become an intriguing character actor – in front of the camera, he’s more talented than his brother – and there is an intense argument between Rodney and Russell where Affleck pushes his character into near-manic territory. Through a few simple gestures, Affleck drops the artifice of performance and communicates a genuine sense of anger.
But the movie’s best scene is between Russell and Lena. They’re talking after his release from prison, and she’s found someone else. Cooper could have taken the easy route, and instead gives us two decent people who still feel a connection even if nothing will be the same again. I’ve grown tired of Bale as a performer – between this and American Hustle, his overacting is a distraction – yet their impasse is genuine. Saldana, on the other hand, combines regret with warmth ands finds a complex character along the way.
Scott Cooper is not a subtle director. There are moments where we watch the brothers in parallel, and the montage suggests a deep rift between them. Cooper is trying to make a point about America, I guess, and how the economic downturn affords only two choices: quiet dignity or somewhere off the beaten path (eg underground boxing).
A few critics compare Out of the Furnace to The Deer Hunter since both films are set in blue collar towns and deal with the aftermath of war. The difference is The Deer Hunter has actual depth, and a curiosity about its characters, whereas Out of the Furnace uses real conflict to make a cheap point. When it does veer toward thriller territory, there is an oddly hollow feeling when there should be catharsis. There is The Deer Hunter here, and also First Blood. The problem is that Cooper borrows the wrong parts from both.