Film Review: Out of the Furnace

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Plot: In the working class town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) struggles to come to terms with the mistakes of his past. But when his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) gets in trouble with a sleazy New Jersey criminal (Woody Harrelson), Russell risks everything to seek justice.

When I watch a movie, the two most important elements I look for are story and characters – it’s that simple. What Out of the Furnace proves is that when you have great characters being portrayed by great actors, they can sometimes make up for a not-so great plot. That’s what we have here in director Scott Cooper’s (Crazy Heart) Out of the Furnace, the latest offering from Christian Bale, one of the most electrifying actors working in Hollywood today…period.

Bale plays Russell Baze, a regular working class guy at the mill. He’s hard-working, extremely likable, and a protagonist you instantly want to succeed. The problem is the character is vastly under written, but you wouldn’t know it from Bale’s performance. As much as I loved Bale’s take as Batman, the fact that he’s not tied down to that franchise anymore is going to open him up to more projects, and we’re all about to experience just how extraordinary an actor this guy truly is. He’s not given a lot of dialogue, but Bale doesn’t care. He’s intense, but also light hearted when he needs to be. Without spoiling too much, there’s one moment Bale has alone in a car where his performance is just scary good. I can’t say enough about this guy…just phenomenal. But as great as Bale is, he may have only given the third best performance in the entire film.

I’m not going to sit here and say Woody Harrelson is an underrated actor, but man is he delivering lately. The very first scene of the movie perfectly sets up his character, and the film had me from that moment on. Harrelson is one of the scariest villains you will ever see on screen…holy matza balls. As Harlan DeGroat, Harrelson is just unsettling to watch. When him and Russell first meet, Harlan speaks a line of dialogue that tells you everything you need to know about this guy. An outstanding performance from Harrelson…he better get Oscar buzz.

But that’s not all, folks. Remember little Casey Affleck? Oh yeah, the funny guy from Good Will Hunting. Talk about an actor who has totally come into his own the last few years. And after this performance, he may have convinced me of being more talented than his brother…acting wise, anyway. Affleck plays Rodney Baze, just a totally psychologically damaged soldier with several tours of Iraq under his belt. Despite his issues, he’s another guy like Russell who you absolutely root for 100%. There’s one emotional blow-out he has with Bale that will absolutely floor you. It’s one of those powerful moments I just crave for in movies. Casey Affleck is yet another Oscar potential in the film.

Aside from the three main performances, the film offers plenty of great supporting roles as well. Willem Dafoe is thoroughly entertaining as a shady bar owner who befriends the Baze family. Forest Whitaker is solid as a local cop. Sam Shepard gives an understated, but subtle performance as Uncle to Russell and Rodney. Zoe Saldana also holds her own as Russell’s girlfriend Lena, although their sub-plot is severely undercooked. And as great as the acting is, this is where the criticisms start creeping in.

It’s not that Out of the Furnace has a bad story, it’s just that the story doesn’t actually take place until an hour into the film. While I love the compelling character development going on, the plot moves way too slow. The pacing is just odd at times. There are so many big moments that should be powerful and emotional, but are callously tossed aside. There’s one scene in particular where Whitaker’s character Chief Barnes has to relay a critical piece of information to Russell, and it just comes off like the characters are simply talking about lunch.

The plot in general really jerks you around. You never know what the focus is really supposed to be. There’s also a lot of spotty direction going on in the third act, in particular a sequence with a SWAT team where I found myself scratching my head afterwards saying…What the hell just happened? But having said all that, despite how awkward the story can get at times, the last fifteen minutes were riveting as all hell. Although the last shot of the film is a bit confusing.

While the screenplay doesn’t progress the story very well, and a few of the characters are underdeveloped, this film has it were it counts, which is why I’m very forgiving of its notable flaws. There are so many beautifully subtle and heartbreaking moments that give the film a presence that is hard to ignore. And even though the directing is inconsistent at times, Cooper perfectly portrays the feel and tone of the economically downtrodden working class town. Whether you get into the story or not, this film must be seen for the performances alone.

Rating: 8 out of 10 (Great)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.