Out of the Furnace

Posted by Michael Parsons on December 6, 2013 in / 2 Comments


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 1386101549000-AP-FILM-REVIEW-OUT-OF-THE-FURNACE-60267996his 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).

out-of-the-furnace-casey-affleck-skipIt’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.


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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).


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