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Out of the Furnace

tn_outofthefurnaceOne movie that came and went during the “summer is over, time for some actor-y shit” period of 2013 was OUT OF THE FURNACE. This is the second movie directed by Scott Cooper, who also rewrote from a script by Brad Ingelsby (writer of the gratuitous American remake of THE RAID that apparently is still happening). Cooper previously directed CRAZY HEART, which was known as the Jeff Bridges Oscar movie, but it was also a good movie in its own right, so it was intriguing that he was doing one with Christian Bale next.

I feel like after we got used to him being Batman we kind of forgot how great Christian Bale is. It’s a relief to see him being funny again in AMERICAN HUSTLE, but I also still like watching Earnest Christian Bale. And in this case Rugged Christian Bale.

This is one of those movies that fetishizes the working man shit. Working at the same steel mill your father did. Talking about car restoration. Scraping old cracked paint off the house. Your brother getting stop lossed again. Having an old bartender as a close family friend. Scruffy facial hair. Neck tattoos. Muscle cars. Dirty pickup trucks. Thick flannel shirts. Work boots. Borrowing money from your brother because you lost what you had betting on the horse races. And not even at the actual race track, but in a little room watching it on TVs. There is also some underground fighting with some twisted rednecks from the Appalachians, but unfortunately that is a smaller plot point than I had hoped.

mp_outofthefurnaceSomehow the trailer had me expecting another indie drama take on the underground fighting genre. I thought the little brother (Casey Affleck – brother of new Batman playing brother of previous Batman) disappeared into a world of bareknuckle fights and older brother had to infiltrate the circle to find him. And I thought Woody Harrelson was another fighter who ends up training him, sort of the grownups version of what he’s doing in the HUNGER GAMESes. But that’s totally wrong, the fights are a pretty small part of the movie and Harrelson’s actually an evil shitbag from the opening scene on.

The movie opens in 2008 with Harrelson’s character Harlan DeGroat abusing his date at a drive-in theater, then beating the shit out of a big dude that tries to intervene. Harrelson looks burlier than usual and acts meaner than he has since NATURAL BORN KILLERS. It’s a good role for him, interesting to see him drained of all his lovable qualities.

But the best thing about the opening is that the movie they’re watching is MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN. It  infamously got a shitty release, going straight to second run theaters, and only 100 of them. But it’s definitely possible that it played drive-ins. Between this and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (which had the title on a marquee as a Bradley Cooper in-joke) it seems that MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN is the go-to movie for 2008 period pieces. In the future it will become conventional wisdom that MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN was one of the most popular and most representative movies of the era. It will be associated with the oughts like SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER is the ’70s or EASY RIDER the ’60s.

Bale plays Russell Baze, a hard working steel mill worker in Braddock, Pennsylvania who in addition to the Rugged Christan Bale activities listed above spends alot of time looking after his fuckup veteran brother and his sick father. He has a real great girlfriend named Lena (Zoe Saldana) who he doesn’t have enough time with, but he makes do.

He wishes he could just get his brother to work at the mill, but after war the kid is addicted to excitement or something. He does some bareknuckle brawling and borrows money from Petty (Willem Dafoe), a scary criminal guy. As soon as you see Dafoe you think you know what this character is gonna be like, but then he’s different. He is genuinely nice to their family. There’s a big scene of Affleck harassing him to call and set up a dangerous fight for him, and Petty keeps telling him over and over again why he doesn’t want to do it for him. Unfortunately he does. It’s a motif in this movie, these guys refusing to be talked out of the stupid things they do to themselves.

But a big mistake one night puts Russell in prison so of course Rodney gets himself into bigger trouble in his absence. He runs afoul of that DeGroat guy and disappears. When Russell gets out he tries to find him.

Bale, Harrelson and Affleck get the showiest roles, but I would like to give some respect to Forest G.D. Whitaker as the police chief and new man for Russell’s old girlfriend. He’s kind of a wimpy guy and in a horrible spot, but he tries to do right thing. There’s kind of a sadness to him too, he’s resigned to being the more responsible but not as cool man for Lena.

I was with it for a while. The characters are interesting, the performances are all good, it’s got a strong, gloomy atmosphere and mood. But after watching their journey I felt like it didn’t amount to much. The feel is not at all like David O. Russell, but it reminds me of his last couple movies in that it’s more about a bunch of great actors exploring characters off of each other than it is about the story. Maybe it would work better on another viewing, or with different expectations, but it seemed to me like it didn’t quite come together in the end. More interesting than good. I’ll be interested to hear if any of you like it more than I do.

There are many elements here that we look for in a genre picture. There’s some revenge, some guns, tough guys facing off, taking justice into your own hands, infiltrating a dark underworld, organized crime, etc. These are all kind of muted and not really the point of the movie, but there are some great moments. I really like Sam Shepard as Russell’s grizzled uncle who goes along as backup. He seems skeptical that this is the right thing to do but wanting to protect his nephew if he can.

But my favorite parts don’t really have anything to do with the revenge and all that. The best scenes are the heartbreaking ones. The scene where Russell’s driving home from the bar and hits a car backing out of its driveway is one of the most upsetting car crashes I’ve seen in a movie. It’s got the usual horror of happening suddenly and leaving him bloody and disoriented. But then he stumbles over to the other car and it’s not about what happened to him, it’s about the guilt of what he’s done. It leaves you hanging for painfully long. I was relieved when it cut straight to him being in prison for it instead of making us deal with any of the pain in between.

The very best scene in my opinion is when he’s out of prison and his girlfriend has left him. He follows her (it’s one of those movies where you can park in cars and spy on people and you’re invisible) and then approaches her and tells her he wants her to come back to him. She tells him why she can’t, but she clearly wants to, and he tells her how happy he is for her while clearly crushed. Two people ignoring their hearts to do the responsible adult thing.

Maybe it’s the limitations of my tastes that I feel like this movie would need stronger traditional genre elements to really work. It seems like all the stuff I appreciated about it should be enough, but I still feel like it’s not quite there. I don’t know, it’s interesting at least.

Also it’s pretty cool that a butt dial is an important plot point. You guys know I want there to be a thriller called BUTT DIAL about somebody that overhears a murder because of a butt dial. BUTT DIAL is copyright Vern 2014.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, March 10th, 2014 at 11:45 am and is filed under Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

14 Responses to “Out of the Furnace”

  1. I agree with Vern point for point on this review. Lots of great actors, lots of great atmosphere, but something just doesn’t click with this movie. It’s kind of a fascinating case because you can’t point at any one piece of the movie and say that’s where it went wrong, because it never does. The only thing I can think of is that maybe they should have just stuck with a story of Christian Bale putting his life together after a colossal fuck-up because those are the scenes when the movie is most engaging. Maybe that was the story the director and Christian Bale were more interested in and that is why they play better.

    And call me lowbrow but maybe you just can’t set up a villain as vile and intimidating as Harlan DeGrote (sic?) and not have a huge fight on top of something that is on fire in the end. It also says something that 3 months after watching the movie that is the only character name I can remember…

  2. Woody can be convincingly scary when he plays bad. Haven’t seen this one, but I remember him as Robin Williams’ abusive brother in THE BIG WHITE. It’s a sort of black FARGO-ish comedy, and Woody comes in later in the film, out of nowhere, and gets all wild-eyed and intimidating, adding danger to the story. Under-appreciated, is what he is.

  3. The Original... Paul

    March 10th, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Didn’t see “Out of the Furnace”, but this…

    “I feel like after we got used to him being Batman we kind of forgot how great Christian Bale is.”

    …pretty much summarises my own attitude towards Bale after “American Hustle”.

  4. I remember several years ago when people called Bale overrated, simply based off the Batman movies and PUBLIC ENEMIES and so forth.

    HA! I’m glad he’s making them his bitches.

    As for this movie, I might check it out sometime but not in a real hurry. But props for them for trying I suppose? Better to try than not.

  5. I agree 100%. Dark/violent/gritty/tonal, this should’ve been a slam dunk for me, but it felt more like a trudge — and I say this as someone who digs the similarly bleak and unloved The Counselor and Killing Them Softly.

    A couple years back, I wrote a spec script for a revenge movie. It was lean, atmospheric, violent and didn’t have a very good/quality ending. I handed it to off my writing partner. He told me: “It’s half a script. Where’s the hook? Why should I give a fuck about this character?” I went back, revised, added an ex-wife, a family; I gave my main character a career, a bunch of loose ends. I took some time to flesh this puppy out. Handed it to my writing partner, says, “What happened to the fucking revenge story?”

    Had I the opportunity (yeah, right) to direct either of those scripts, lean or fat, I would’ve proudly filmed everything I wrote. …And both movies would’ve probably been unsatisfying.

    I think the biggest problem with Out of the Furnace is that Scott Cooper wrote AND directed it — and he directed the “fat” version of what is in essence a lurid revenge tale. That it takes (SPOILERS) over half the film to get to the butt dial death, speaks to how skewed the pacing of this flick is. I’m all for throwing Save the Cat-style screenwriting out the window, but when it takes an hour to get to your second act, it’s probably because the writer doesn’t know between the expository introductory scenes that he likes and the ones that are necessary.

    IMHO, either Out of the Furnace would’ve worked better as a novel or with some ruthless editing of the first hour.

    That said, had I written Out of the Furnace, as is, I would be very proud of myself. Had I written and directed it, I would’ve been proud of the final product. As a viewer who did neither, I found it kind’ve a slog to make through to the end.

    Making movies is a bitch.

  6. Speaking of Woody, did anybody watch TRUE DETECTIVE?

  7. Jareth Cutestory

    March 11th, 2014 at 6:58 am

    RRA: I try to not be too down on Bale, but you have to remember the hyperbole that surrounded him when DARK KNIGHT was popular. To someone like me, who thinks Bale is merely competent at best (PRESTIGE) and hammy at worst (AMERICAN PSYCHO), all the uncritical adoration seemed wildly disproportionate to his modest talent.

    I think sometimes that if that Bale hadn’t drawn so much attention to how seriously he took his craft by throwing a temper tantrum he’d probably just sort of sit there quietly in our perceptions alongside his most obvious peers, Bradley Cooper and Matthew McConaughey

  8. The Undefeated Gaul

    March 11th, 2014 at 8:30 am

    Nah, people still would have noticed Bale even without the temper tantrum, him being a fucking good actor and all. His only danger is that he can become too sour and dull (see 3:10 To Yuma, Dark Knight Rises), but even if that happens he is always immensely convincing as the character he’s playing.

    It’s funny comparing him to Bradley Cooper and Matthew McConaughey. A couple years ago I would have told you Bale was lightyears ahead of those two. Now though, McConaughey is suddenly doing great work himself and catching up. Bradley Cooper though clearly belongs in a lower category. He’s not terrible but bland and lacks dramatic intensity.

  9. I thought this review was right on. I really liked a lot of things about this movie, and there are images I still can’t shake, but something about it was lacking and sort of unsatisfying. That said, I’d probably say it was one of the better movies I saw last year, and there were lots I liked.

    “This is one of those movies that fetishizes the working man shit.”

    That part of the review is what I really wanna talk about because its very on-point, and I’ve thought about this a fair bit. I really liked how the characters were written in this, I appreciated they were working class, and I have met people like these brothers plenty, however, it sort of sucks seeing movies about lower class people in small towns and feel like they’re trying to show you your life but its painted in broad strokes. I remember in Vern’s (your) review of 2001 Maniacs, he asked if seeing people from “the south” (or other “flyover” regions) constantly portrayed as drawling idiots/rapists/generally evil/uneducated/whatever was irritating, and the answer to that question is “Yes, it sure fucking is.” Out the Furnace wasn’t like that, by any stretch, but it still felt a bit off the mark for me. Like it would be a huge stretch to make a movie about people who work these types of jobs, but maybe also are super into movies and Jim Thompson novels and maybe even Outlawvern.com. Maybe they play guitar and don’t know any Skynyrd songs. Maybe they don’t have confederate flag shit all over their fucking house, or anywhere at all for that matter. Maybe how they feel about people who are different from them doesn’t need to be explained through “saint” scenes, it should just be understood they aren’t bigots. One movie that did come out last year, that I really, truly appreciated was Mud. I’m not even sure that was a better movie than Out of the Furnace, but it did have the dirty little boy in the Fugazi shirt, and his uncle, played by Michael Shannon, as working class dude interested in the arts (dig all those homemade house show posters on his wall- excellent fucking detail), generally open minded, even progressive, but definitely a dude who enjoys his work. That was great to see, because not only do I know people like that, I can relate on a pretty personal level to this.

  10. I think it was too preposterous to being taken seriously as a drama, and too dry to be taken seriously as a genre piece. It’s not noir, not an action/revenge film, and definitly not believable as a portrait of this layer of the working class.

  11. This felt like one of those Bruce Springsteen songs I’ve been told all my life is a classic I’m supposed to love that just makes me shrug. Like something off Nebraska. I’m glad others feel the same way, or else I’d feel guilty.

  12. Dikembe Mutombo

    March 15th, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    Jareth – obvious to you maybe! McConaughey’s shown that he can get deep into a character (I prefer him to Bale actually), but Cooper has yet to convince me. He has his moments but IMO he’s a guy who likes to just turn the volume up to 11 when he can’t think of anything else to do.

    Randy – Michael Shannon’s character in MUD was one of those great instances of a movie showing you a type of dude you’ve definitely known but somehow have never seen portrayed onscreen before.

    That said I really dug this movie. Woody was so crazy good in it, so convincingly malicious and unhinged, if the movie was better received I’m convinced he would’ve been in the awards convo. I also found it cool that it led to me learning about the Ramapo Mountain Indians (who weren’t very happy with the movie). Willem Dafoe was sneaky-great in his little role too.

    “Maybe it’s the limitations of my tastes that I feel like this movie would need stronger traditional genre elements to really work. It seems like all the stuff I appreciated about it should be enough, but I still feel like it’s not quite there. I don’t know, it’s interesting at least.”

    I do feel you on this point Vern. I would have liked either more fighting or more juice to the revenge plot. But I still thought it was a pretty cool/interesting movie with a lot of tension. I liked the suspense of Bale infiltrating the meth mansion; and I really liked how it ends in a realistic way with a cop tracking him down and escorting him to state lines and that’s the end of his little adventure. With law enforcement in two different states applying pressure to him there’s just nothing he can do but go back to his daily routine, which is how it would be for any regular joe.

    I don’t know why this review made me think of it because it’s is more exciting, funnier and has more interesting characters than OUT OF THE FURNACE, but I just remembered that you still haven’t seen END OF WATCH, Vern. It’s so good, I’m convinced you’ll really like it even with your antipathy towards found footage (which I share).

  13. It seemed to me that the director had maybe watched The Deer Hunter while writing this movie, and then later on there was a scene where Bale chooses not to shoot a deer. Huh.

    Okay film. Well acted. Disappointing ending. “Put the gun down! Do not shoot! Don’t do it! DO NOT DO IT!!!… Oh, you did it. Okay.”

  14. I thought it was god awful. A strong example of the kind of bad movie that happens when self-described serious filmatists condescend to do a genre piece without any real respect or understanding of the tropes and expectations they’re playing with.
    Shame, because it’s beautifully shot and has a fantastic cast.

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