Into the Christmas season’s stocking, an amalgam of Hollywood production companies has dumped “Out of the Furnace” like a handful of coal and an assortment of switches. We’re wanting festive, cozy jollity. This movie is bitter, fate-ridden unhappiness.
This is not to say that Director Scott Cooper’s second movie (the first was “Crazy Heart”) fails. It was intended to be unhappy and deterministic. And it was intended to rely on good acting.
Consider the cast here: Christian Bale, movie fan’s fave, plays the lead character, Russell. His brother is played by Casey Affleck. Sam Shepard, Zoe Saldana, Woody Harrleson, Willem Dafoe, and the great Forest Whitaker, all have significant parts.
The story is set in the Alleghenies, in mill town Pennsylvania and the New Jersey of dangerous mountain men. All the towns and all the farms are decaying. and during the film’s first, wildly scattered hour, there’s talk of “stop-loss” deployments and the smoke of the factory fills the steeply sloped town’s streets.
There may be reasons for some of the apparently superfluous scenes included during that first sixty minutes. Why are we treated to a visit to the sick room of the boy’s dying father? The old guy dies while Russell is in prison. Our hero was sent there for being intoxicated (was he?) when a car backed onto the highway right in front of him.
When Russ gets back to town, few other things have changed. His girlfriend (Saldana) has turned for romantic stability to the local policeman (Whitaker). But Russell’s brother Rodney is still taking part in bare-knuckles fights instead of taking a job.
Rodney convinces local gambling organizer John Petty (Dafoe) to get him a money-making appearance in the rough ring. The two of them drive 350 miles to a decrepit warehouse where Rodney is supposed to take a convincing dive at the behest of local promoter and meth tweaker Harlen DeGroat. DeGroat is a scary guy, as a couple of set-up incidents have established.
Once the fight is over, neither Petty nor Rodney come home. Petty is found, having been shot dead in his car. Russell, afraid that his local policeman’s jealousy will harm the search for Rodney, goes scouting up into the Garden State himself. His information leads a SWAT team to swarm what had been a tweakers’ squat.
Eventually Russ, who feels himself fated not to be happy, arranges for DeGroat to be decoyed back to Pennsylvania. The trap itself is ingenious, and his method of exacting revenge is arresting. The film’s last camera shot is cryptic.
The Grunge Rock soundtrack is just right in this film. The movie is sad, occasionally violent, and hopeless.
Which means it is just plain wrong for release in the Christmas run-up.
In this season, we’re looking for a little hope. There is no hope on offer in “Out of the Furnace.” Its sinking blue-collar world is so dingy that Russell’s re-painting his family home seem a gesture so obviously pointless that is is immediately emblematic. He has no association with future generations, as the story reminds him.
His world is not corrupt enough to be instantly destroyed, like an Appalachian Sodom. Instead it is just old, with weeds growing in the drive-in movie lot and empty, rotting buildings around everywhere—houses to host drug trippers and warehouses to serve as make-shift fight arenas.
This is a movie with more broken windows than whole ones.
It may be ungenerous to refuse Cooper’s offering of a world circling the drain. But another way of looking at it is that the invariably depressed need to get off my cloud, at least until the bowl season is over.