Bale, Harrelson on fire in “Out of the Furnaceâ€

Bale, Harrelson on fire in “Out of the Furnaceâ€

By Karsten Burgstahler

Almost one year ago, Brad Pitt’s “Killing Them Softly” meshed politics and the economy of the torn city of New Orleans with stories of the characters within it.

This weekend director Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” (Rated R; 116 Min.) enters the same territory, but this time the economy being addressed is that of rural Pennsylvania. “Furnace” is not quite as successful in making its political statement as was “Killing”, but it features better performances and is a more accessible film than Pitt’s heavily cynical work.

Christian Bale leads “Furnace” as Russell Baze, a quiet man living in the economically torn town of Braddock, Penn. Russell works at the steel mill, but as the company begins outsourcing to China, his job is in jeopardy. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) has recently returned from a tour in Iraq and is in heavy gambling debt. A drunk driving accident lands Russell in prison, and when he’s released five years later Rodney is in even deeper. Rodney persuades fight organizer John Petty (Willem Dafoe) to set up a battle in the hills a few hours from town in the kingdom of Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). But the battle goes wrong and Russell is forced to head into the hills to discover what happened to his brother.


The problem with “Out of the Furnace” is not that this plot is not unengrossing; Cooper never allows things to move too slowly. But the way the story moves from one scene to the next without a sense of direction is distracting. Cooper clearly has something he wants to say about the state of Braddock and the way things never change in the hills. The community only gets worse while Russell is locked away in prison. But a few scenes of shocking violence, a brief clip of the Democratic National Convention and several lines of dialogue about how hard things are do not prove a point. “Killing” was over the top in its politics but at least it had the determination to hit home. “Furnace” is certainly subtler than “Killing,” but when it does choose to wear its intentions on its sleeve, the shots are powerful. One scene juxtaposes two fighters drawing blood from each other while two hunters skin and watch the blood drip from a deer.

Scott occasionally neglects his characters and the actors playing them, choosing instead to create a mood. This would be OK in a movie that lacks such explosive performances waiting to burst out, but more of a balance would have been nice. That being said, many of the shots are gorgeous and the mood is certainly right, if not required to represent a lot more than it actually does. If the whole thing flowed more smoothly, the cinematography would have fit better with the writing.

The performances more than make up for the meandering writing, however. Bale is reserved, but he can say so much with just a simple expression. He keeps his cool even in the most dangerous situations.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, but just as impressive, is Woody Harrelson. Harrelson is having a good year, playing his signature sarcastic style in both “Now You See Me” and “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” But “Furnace” gives him a chance to let is unhinged side come out, and he blows the roof off the movie. As DeGroat, a man who lives by his own rules and can’t be controlled by the police, Harrelson dives deep into his performance. He’s one of the best antagonists this year.

Affleck is a different case. He represents every veteran who has been let down by the government. He fights for his country, but also for his own life. He’s the definition of a “scrappy underdog.” But sometimes his attempts to come across as furious are somewhat laughable. Instead of adding a different dimension to the familiar character, just stays with the status quo. It’s not a bad performance , it’s just not stellar.

“Out of the Furnace” thwarts its own attempts to be as important as it wants to be. But with stellar performances from its leading cast, it’s not one to miss. “Furnace” definitely has something it wants to say, but it asks audiences to understand it without giving them proper direction.