I often gripe – probably too much – about films in which the characters are not adequately developed. Such is not the case with “Out of the Furnace”, the new film from director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”), though I suppose it would be hard for a filmmaker to come up empty with the likes of Christian Bale and Casey Affleck in the lead roles. They play brothers enduring the hardships of small-town life – Bale a soon to be casualty of the dwindling Pennsylvania steel industry and Affleck just off his umpteenth tour in Iraq, financially destitute and angry – yet Cooper doesn’t seem to know what to do with these characters after he establishes them. The script, co-written by Cooper and feature film newbie Brad Ingelsby, builds its layers early on, as mild-mannered Russell Baze (Bale) does a stint in prison for a fatal drunk driving accident and younger brother Rodney (Affleck) turns to a local bookkeeper (Willem Dafoe) and bare-knuckle boxing for cash. This soon leads Rodney to New Jersey and a backwoods clan of meth-head fight-clubbers led by the psychotic Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson practically playing crazy in his sleep).
It’s here that “Out of the Furnace” seems to go into a bit of a holding pattern, and Bale is stuck in one-note purgatory, as the film becomes a meditation on everything that was introduced in the first act, with little else to say beyond that. It’s too slow for a cat and mouse thriller, as Rodney disappears and the local police chief (Forest Whitaker) investigates the purportedly “untouchable” band of DeGroats’s inbreds that he suspects are responsible, and it’s too ordinary to make a profound statement about much of anything, even though it has the look of something that’s trying to. When Russell takes matters into his own hands, the film goes the way of the revenge flick, but it feels unsure of itself, like Cooper is closely adhering to a fact-based account and unable to explore a more exciting conclusion. While it’s not a true story, there is a naturalistic quality about the film, only it should elicit deep emotion where it tends to fall into flatline. Moreover, it gives us too much time to realize how little connection there is between the protagonist and antagonist, and all that character building begins to fade into obscurity.
“Furnace” boasts an exceptional supporting cast, including Zoe Saldana and Sam Shepard, both of whom are squandered well before film’s end. Bale, one of the most fearless, energetic and dedicated actors of his generation, isn’t given enough to do, and perhaps because we’ve seen his tireless commitment in films like “American Psycho” and “The Machinist”, appears disinterested by comparison. Affleck is the only one who really shines here as a frustrated, confused and surprisingly powerful product of the U.S. Army. Some beautiful cinematography gives a vivid sense of our changing times, as well as an authentic texture, but the film’s haunting ambience and steely ghost town quality only assist it in becoming virtually inert.