This movie review was originally commissioned by and written for USA TODAY COLLEGE in the winter of 2013. It was never published there, so it lives on, in full, un-copyedited glory, here. Enjoy. Photo found here.
“Whatever you did, you had to do.” Those words, uttered by Russell Baze (Christian Bale) to his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), form the plot of “Out of the Furnace.” This film is about doing what you have to do to survive, and it tries to say a lot more about the state of America, but it never follows through on its intentions.
Russell works at the local steel mill, where he makes enough to provide for his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) and to pay off Rodney’s occasional gambling debts to John Petty, the local bookie (Willem Dafoe). When he’s not working or getting Rodney out of trouble, he’s paying visits to his dying father. All of this takes place in the Rust Belt circa 2007, and Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography makes it clear that this is a depressed family living in a depressed town in a depressed time.
Things go south when Russell accidentally kills a child while drunk driving one night and must serve a prison sentence. Upon his release, he realizes that Rodney has become so indebted to Petty that he has started participating in fight rings to make money. Rodney disappears after he goes to a fight ring in the Appalachians led by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a ruthless meth addict who is feared by everyone, including local law enforcement. When Russell finds out that Rodney has gone missing, he sets out to confront Harlan.
On its surface, “Furnace” is a straight-up revenge story. Dig a little deeper, and it’s director Scott Cooper’s meditation on the deterioration of blue collar America. Cooper tries to say something profound about the way rural America is headed, but comes up short. Thematically, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before. The pacing is erratic and makes the movie feel halfway between a character drama and a revenge movie. And it’s violent to a fault.
There’s something to be said about a film that approaches violence with shocking realism, and “Furnace” is nothing if not gratuitously violent. The fights that Rodney gets into are viscerally raw, and Harrelson starts the film off with a vicious attack on a woman that will make you never look at a hot dog the same way again. There’s nothing to this violence beyond its shock value, however. There are seemingly no consequences to any of the violent acts that are committed in the film. I left the theater wondering, “What was the point?” Maybe Cooper’s point was to prove that, at its core, violence is always pointless and shocking, but “Prisoners” and “12 Years a Slave” already made that point more poetically earlier this year.
If you go to see “Furnace” at all, see it for the performances. Affleck and Bale create a brotherly bond that is very realistic without exchanging a lot of words, and one scene they have is especially moving. Harrelson, at his manic best, steals every scene he’s in, and makes it seem like anything can happen when he’s on screen. Saldana, in the one scene she shares with Bale, delivers a captivating portrait of a woman who doesn’t know where her life is going. Dafoe plays a past-his-prime bookie as only he can. Sam Shepard is wasted in his role as Russell and Rodney’s uncle, as is Forest Whitaker in his brief screen time as the sheriff. But all of the excellent performances can’t overshadow the fact that this is a weak movie.
Verdict: Beer. It’s good enough to rent on Redbox in a few months, but for now, a six-pack is a better investment.