It should be said right off the bat that “Out of the Furnace” is not a great movie. In fact, it’s relatively typical of your normal revenge thriller, though it clearly aspires to be more. It stumbles in many areas, but what makes it so appealing is its terrific ensemble cast. Everyone in the film gives applaud worthy performances, elevating the tale to something better than it has any right to be. While it may not reach many “best of” lists, it would be a shame to see it not receive some acting nominations from awards groups nationwide. Although by-the-numbers in many ways, “Out of the Furnace” is still a gripping watch because of them.
Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a small town mill worker who wants nothing more than to live a normal life. He’s one of those quiet heroes screenplays are so fond of, someone who gets things done, helps others and fixes mistakes without dealing with any real confrontation. Despite his non-confrontational attitude and desire to live a normal live, his days are complex. His brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck) who is likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after his stint in Iraq, is a gambler and can’t find the money to pay his bookie, John (Willem Dafoe). This means Russell has to bail him out with the little bit of money he has earned, lest something bad happen to him. His girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), wants nothing more than to have a child, though his hesitance shows he may not be ready for one. And on top of that, his father is gravely ill.
This is enough to give the film its dramatic and emotional edge, but “Out of the Furnace” takes things a few steps further. Russell eventually ends up killing a mother and child when he accidentally slams into their car, which incarcerates him. By the time he gets out, his dad is dead and his girlfriend has left him. It should also be noted that all of this happens in the front end of the movie. These things pile on so high that it would be tragic if it wasn’t so comical. Things get even more complicated later on, if you can believe it, when the psychotic crime boss Harlan (Woody Harrelson) enters the picture and threatens violence against Russell’s brother.
Cramming so much into one picture proves to be the film’s biggest downfall. It’s like the screenwriters didn’t have total faith in their material, so they just threw more and more on top of it until they reached a point where they thought it would practically force viewers to sympathize. It’s a tactic that doesn’t work and it comes off as a tad insulting. Its interesting messages also find themselves skewed by this oversaturation and by some late movie muddle that takes otherwise grounded characters and jumps them to extremes with some questionable actions.
Essentially, “Out of the Furnace” is about how we handle desperation. In the film, Russell handles his situation with poise, showing his kindness whenever he can, even if that kindness means something as seemingly minor as sparing the life of a deer he has resting at the end of his sights, while Rodney is self-destructive, opting to fight in an underground ring, but refusing to throw the fight as instructed due to his own vanity. The juxtaposition is striking at first, but as the film goes on and characters abandon these ideals, it loses its focus. One could argue that what happens is still an exploration of how we handle desperation when we reach our tipping point, but it makes the message no less flimsy. What it explores in its opening moments are negated by its closing.
Even without its hypocrisy in its final moments, the climax is too silly to be taken seriously, ending with your typical Hollywood stylization with an event that would never be allowed to happen in real life given the circumstances. To say more would be to give it away, but what it all boils down to is that “Out of the Furnace” doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to be. Yet it all goes back to the performances. Every one of these actors, including the ones I’ve neglected to mention, give uniformly excellent performances, doing their absolute best with material that is decidedly subpar. For those less interested in acting and more interested in story, “Out of the Furnace” won’t be too enticing, but if you enjoy seeing some of today’s most talented performers at the top of their game, this is one you won’t want to miss.