Ashes to ashes

“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a film like this?”

“What’s a nice girl like you doing in a film like this?”

Rated 3.0

In the opening scene of Out of the Furnace, Woody Harrelson’s slimy, steroidal backwoods crime boss forcibly shoves a hot dog wiener down his date’s throat, and then savagely beats the man who comes to her aid. The film doesn’t get any more lighthearted from there, wallowing in cruelty, unpleasantness and stylized suffering with no end goals other than a vague air of ominous significance.

Out of the Furnace was directed and co-written by Scott Cooper, and like his more manageable but similarly flawed debut movie Crazy Heart, this is a pretty empty exercise in overblown emotional “intensity” and unchecked actor worship. The film has vivid and powerful moments, but just as often it feels exploitative, empty and false.

It doesn’t help that Cooper invites comparisons to Michael Cimino’s sprawling masterpiece The Deer Hunter, with its remarkable mix of pulp violence, Americana, human drama and political allegory. Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace has none of the mythological mystique of The Deer Hunter, only the pretensions. It tries to stand on the shoulders of giants, and is forced to settle for a piggyback ride.

Christian Bale stars as Russell Baze, a blue-collar worker in a burnt-out husk of a Pennsylvania mining town, a city whose only growth industries are off-track betting, bare-knuckle boxing, meth dealing and alcoholism. The town is dying around Russell and his family—it’s so bleak and economically depressed that you half expect to see Jennifer Lawrence sneaking through the streets with a bow and arrow.

Russell works in the town’s one source of legitimate employment—the mine, where he likes to take off his mask and stare meaningfully into the flames (that has to be a safety violation, right?). His shifty younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is an Iraq War veteran repeatedly stop-lossed back into combat, leaving him emotionally scarred and unwilling to settle for the same dead-end mining job.

In one of the sequences where Cooper’s meticulous portent pays off, a cruel twist of fate lands Russell in prison, and while he’s inside Rodney sinks further into the underworld of bare-knuckle boxing. This is where the story finally collides with Harrelson’s dirtbag kingpin, and when Rodney turns up missing after a backcountry boxing match, the increasingly disconnected Russell defies the law to bring him back.

As an actors’ showcase, Out of the Furnace is a mixed bag. The performances are for the most part individually strong, but the spin-the-wheel casting and vacuum-sealed emotions fail to add up to a coherent universe. It doesn’t even seem like Bale, Affleck, Zoe Saldana, and Forest Whitaker should know each other, much less share a long and tortured history, and therefore key moments ring false.

Bale’s lack of identity is also a problem, although perhaps it’s just the cumulative effect of too much chameleonesque humorlessness in too many mediocre movies. He might be one of the most consistently solid actors working today, but his performances are always surrounded by a diagrammatic web of actorly choices—Bale tends to disappear into his characters without ever really becoming them.

Of course, the main problem here is that all of Cooper’s characters are defined by their suffering, not by any internal lives. Only Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson are natural enough to cut through the fraudulent emotional grime, and their scenes together are the best in the film.

Harrelson’s work deserves special notice, since it’s a summation of everything great and terrible about this film. He is genuinely terrifying as Harlan DeGroat, a figure of pure redneck menace whose every pause and gesture holds the screen in a vise grip of impending violence. That said, Harrelson has a tendency to swallow the screen and everyone on it, and Cooper neglects to harness his power.

After a fair amount of gut wrenching and soul punching, Out of the Furnace builds to a protracted, fairly ridiculous final sequence where we can feel Cooper straining for an important moment. While Cooper may court comparisons to The Deer Hunter, the real antecedents of Out of the Furnace are pompous, overrated chest beaters like Mystic River and Crash.