Out of the Furnace is a frustrating misfire, made all the more dispiriting by the unwarranted high caliber of acting talent it attracted. As writer/director Scott Cooper’s second feature film, its most lasting impact is the recognition that his first film, Crazy Heart, also wasn’t very good. If you missed it during its miniscule theatrical run at the end of last year, its rapid appearance on Blu-ray also speaks volumes about its position as an underachiever.
The film’s biggest flaw is that Cooper doesn’t know what he wants it to be: a tale of brotherly bonding, an ex-con’s redemption story, or a brutal revenge drama. Instead, we get a bit of all, with subplots of lost love and underground fight culture thrown in for good measure. It’s hard to imagine how such a flawed and unsavory script won over the stellar cast, aside from perhaps leading them to believe they had potential accolades to gain from playing mostly gritty, low-class losers.
Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a dedicated factory worker who has followed in his father’s footsteps by remaining in the same oppresive Pennsylvania hometown and dead-end job. He has a great relationship with his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) but a so-so relationship with his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a war veteran who can’t find his way in civilian life. Russell wants his brother to settle down and get a stable job at the factory like him, but his brother is more interested in gambling and illegal fighting for money.
When Russell is involved in a severe car accident, he ends up getting sent to prison for vehicular manslaughter. Oddly, it’s never explained how long he’s incarcerated. Could be a few months, could be 5+ years, but the end result is that he faces a different world when he gets out, with his girlfriend gone into the arms of a local cop (Forest Whitaker) and his brother disappearing even further into depression and self-destructive fighting. Saldana and Whitaker play such ancillary and entirely insignificant characters that there’s really no justification for their inclusion, just as there’s no reason for the prison scenes or any of the events leading up to that point. For all intents and purposes, the film’s first act is entirely superfluous.
Rodney’s never-ending quest for cash leads him to New Jersey, where he fights at an event staged by the violent and volatile Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), the local crime kingpin who is feared by everyone including the cops. Not surprisingly, things don’t go very well for Rodney, setting in motion a revenge quest by Russell. That mission isn’t set up until the last third of the film, yet another structural deficiency in the wobbly script that bounces from plot to plot like a pinball.
Bale is believable as the virtuous factory worker, but Harrelson gets the most mileage out of his juicy villain role, made all the more impressive in comparison to his part in the recently completed True Detective. Here he’s a sinewy and deeply menacing drug addict, a far cry from his TV role as a dimwitted and dumpy conservative cop. Affleck does ok, although he’s more impressive in the fight scenes than the dramatic acting.
The Blu-ray’s technical specs are very good, with the soul-crushing grime of the locations conveyed in almost too-precise hi def. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio soundtrack doesn’t get much of a workout except for the fight scenes, which have excellent surround and bone-crunching bass.
Bonus features are strictly of the talent ego-stroking variety including a conversation with Cooper about his inspiration for the film, brief interviews with the stars about their initial interest in acting, a look at the making of the fight scenes, and the genesis of the soundtrack.