Out of the Furnace a lukewarm film

Potential for greatness extinguished by poor direction

An awkward cross between a meditative slice of life and a pulsating revenge drama Out of the Furnace strives to offer two films for the price of one. Unfortunately neither wholly succeeds.

Director Scott Cooper’s followup to Crazy Heart centres on Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) two brothers living in the decaying industrial town of Braddock Pennsylvania. Russell works at the local steel mill while tending to his ailing father (Bingo O’Malley) girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) and Rodney who ekes out a living by gambling between tours of duty in Iraq.

But Russell’s relatively stable if hardly idyllic existence is shattered when a drunken turn behind the wheel has predictable consequences and lands him in jail for manslaughter. Released an unspecified amount of time later things take on a bleaker hue with his father dead and Lena having left him for another man. Most ominously Rodney has turned to illegal bare-knuckle boxing to pay off his debts bringing him into contact with ruthless crime boss Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).

The well-lensed film hauntingly evokes the gloom and grime of Braddock a town that like many in the Rust Belt has clearly seen better days. Bale and Affleck are also convincing as basically good men more sinned against than sinning who know there’s no real way out of their depressing circumstances.

But while their stories are affecting on a micro level the film falters when clumsily trying to make larger points. Russell’s offhand remark about how “steel is cheaper in China” is a simplistic explanation for the decline of American heavy industry. A war-weary Rodney’s rant about the horrors of his time in Iraq also feels hollow.

“I gave my fucking life for this country. What’s it done for me?” he bellows. No doubt Rodney’s been ill-served but it’s hard to accept the film’s suggestion his battle scars are at the root of all his problems.

At other times however the film isn’t explicit enough alluding vaguely to deeper themes without much success. A case in point is the deer-hunting trip Russell takes with his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) scenes of which are interspersed with Rodney getting pummeled in a match. There’s clearly meant to be a connection between these two blood sports but what it is remains a mystery.

Before one can ponder this too carefully however the film changes course when Rodney goes missing after a bout and Russell comes to suspect Harlan’s responsible. The shift isn’t wholly unwelcome since the action was a bit plodding up to this point but the execution’s less than stellar. The brutal DeGroat feels like he belongs in another film altogether and his faux-tough dialogue — “I got a problem with everybody” he barks at one point — is similarly misplaced. Russell also makes an improbable shift from being his brother’s keeper to his avenger culminating in a contrived melodramatic ending that brings the film to an overly abrupt close.

Despite its flaws Out of the Furnace is watchable but it could have been a much better film. No doubt Cooper is capable of helming something more consistent in style and themes but until he can master this he should realize quantity’s a poor substitute for quality.