There’s a moment in “Out of the Furnace” when a backwoods, villainous hick named Harlan DeGroat has a deer skinned to its bones hanging from the ceiling. The imagery calls to mind something absolutely raw, as though this bleak look at Americana symbolized all that’s emotional and open about the people who live this way. But Director Scott Cooper’s prized trophy doesn’t have that much meat on its bones to begin with. “Out of the Furnace” feels frustratingly unspecific, empty and generic, no matter how gritty the characters are.
It starts as a story of two brothers grappling with the complications of poverty, crumbling industry, crime, family, violence and more before taking a left turn as a revenge story driven by not much at all. Cooper has loaded his film with imagery and personalities full of gravitas as though that were enough.
Russell and Rodney Baze (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) are two good ‘ole boys with little to their name beyond their factory jobs and their truck. Russell has a girlfriend he loves dearly (Zoe Saldana) and a father on his death bed, but he’s yanked violently from those loves when he gets involved in a drunk driving wreck that kills a woman and child. While his brother lies in prison, Rodney has lost thousands gambling and looks to repay his debts through illegal bare-knuckle brawls. As a former soldier, fighting seems to be all he knows.
Rodney eventually finds his way to the most rural of rural areas, where the meth dealer and backwoods boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) has organized a fight that gets Rodney in trouble. Russell, now free from prison, looks to rescue his brother and bring him back home.
These are men full of rage, anger and addiction, but none of it seems specific or tied to a real backstory or social issue. That Rodney is driven to fight as a result of his veteran status is treated as a given. The police claim they have no jurisdiction in Harlan’s gangster society up in the hills, and yet their dynamic as criminals seem to have no real impact on Anytown, USA where “Out of the Furnace” is set. Rodney is forced to take a dive during his fight, but it’s never explained why there should be an unspoken tension and danger between Harlan and Rodney’s manager (Willem Dafoe). “Am I supposed to be scared because he sucks on a lollipop,” Rodney asks of Harlan. Cooper struggles to explain why we should be afraid of Harlan, but with a line like this he calls attention to how cartoonishly cliché and short tempered Harrelson’s character is in the first place.
In fact all of the industrial, Americana imagery in the film contains an understated melodrama but doesn’t seem to signify much of anything in particular. Saldana is the film’s only named female character, and she’s given absolutely zero to do. And Bale’s Russell is the protagonist, but possibly only to serve as an ironic counterpoint to his more troubled brother. “Out of the Furnace” ends on a heavy note, and the cinematography makes it to be a movie of purpose, but it’s without much purpose at all.
2 ½ stars