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New Release Review - Out of the Furnace

Two brothers become dangerously embroiled in the world of illegal bare-knuckle boxing.

Directed by: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Woody Harrelson, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker


Steelworker Russell Baze is incarcerated after a night of drunk driving results in the death of a child. On completion of his sentence, he returns to his hometown where his father has passed away and his younger brother, Rodney (Affleck), is struggling to adjust to civilian life following his return form military service in Iraq. Owing money to local bar-owner Petty (Dafoe), Rodney becomes a bare-knuckle boxer under Petty's guidance. Seeing an opportunity to clear his debt, Rodney asks Petty to set up a fight in a lawless area of the Appalachians controlled by inbred mobster Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson). Terrified by DeGroat, to whom he owes a small fortune himself, Petty refuses at first but grudgingly sets up a fight as a way to clear his own tab.
A generation-spanning cast of great actors. A rural Americana setting straight out of a Springsteen ballad. A soundtrack of melancholy banjo music. All of the above are catnip to this reviewer and it's for these reasons that Scott Cooper's film had me hooked for at least its opening hour.
For a few years, Bale had become something of a parody of himself. Immediately after seeing his iconic turn in American Psycho I wanted to watch as much of the Welsh thesp as I could but as the noughties rolled on he became less interesting, opting for a series of showy/shouty roles. Out of the Furnace provides Bale with the sort of quiet, introverted role he's most comfortable with and it's a joy to watch him flesh out a poorly written character. Bale gives the character of Russell Baze a dignity unearned by Cooper and co-writer Brad Inglesby's morally vacuous and misjudged script.
Last year, the Sylvester Stallone penned Homefront gave us an introspective action movie for the recession era. With Out of the Furnace, Cooper appears to be attempting a similar feat. But where Stallone and director Gary Fleder gave us the cinematic equivalent of a gourmet burger, Cooper presents us with a mouth-watering steak. Unfortunately, thanks to the film's awkward script, he's asking us to eat it with a plastic spork.
The characters of Out of the Furnace suffer from a combination of over-writing and under-development. Bale's Russell Baze is the most problematic. Presumably, Cooper's intention is for Russell to undergo a quest for redemption but the character is badly misjudged. Upon his release from prison, we see Russell place flowers at the site of the fatal accident but we never really get the sense that he's troubled by his actions of that fateful night. On a hunting trip he is unable to shoot a deer, presumably because his vehicular incident has turned him off killing a creature of any kind, yet later, upon hearing some troubling news about his brother, he immediately turns into Charles Bronson. Most troubling is how his selfish actions later have violent and fatal repercussions for innocent parties. Cooper may have sent his protagonist on a journey of redemption but he's far beyond it.
I'm not entirely sure why Cooper included the drunk driving incident as it seems to have no real repercussions in the story. It's unclear how much time Russell actually spends in prison and the editing makes it seem like a matter of months rather than the several years you would expect for such a crime. The film's oddly under populated small town seems to welcome Russell back with open arms as though nobody is affected by his actions.
Russell's previous girlfriend (Saldana) is another pointless plot device and her relationship with Whitaker's Sheriff is so poorly sketched and unconvincing, I initially presumed they were father and daughter. The death of Russell and Rodney's father likewise adds nothing to the story. 
The setting and cast (Harrelson finally perfects the tough guy persona he's been working on since Natural Born Killers) were enough to get me through Out of the Furnace but ultimately it's NRA commercial morality left a sour taste in the mouth.
5/10


Eric Hillis

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