Memories of “The Deer Hunter” creep in long before the deer hunt in “Out of the Furnace,” co-writer / director Scott Cooper’s ambitious, impressionistic and confused ode to steel belt machismo, code, family and revenge.
Cooper’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Crazy Heart” landed a cast studded with Oscar winners and Oscar nominees. But the story he stuck them in is an unsettlingly violent and unfocused stomp, from its psychotic drive-in assault opening to its dispiriting and unsatisfying finale.
Christian Bale and Casey Affleck play Pennsylvania steel-town brothers. Russell Baze (Bale) stays out of trouble and works hard at the mill, as his dad before him did. Rodney (Affleck) gambles when he’s at home, anything to mimic the risks he takes as a soldier stuck doing multiple tours in Iraq.
Russell is planning a life with Lena (Zoe Saldana). But looking out for Rodney is his life’s work. When the kid gets in deep with the local hustler / loan shark (Willem Dafoe), Russell tries to settle his debts. But after he does, with the requisite drinks that come with that transaction, a deadly car wreck lands him in prison, costs him his girl and his future.
When Rodney returns from war, the kid ups the ante by getting into illegal, bare-knuckle prize fights in the abandoned steels mills of Appalachian Pennsylvania. And that’s when he runs afoul of Harlan (Woody Harrelson). A New Jersey thug with his fingers in everything illegal in these mountains, we’ve seen him brutalize a date at the drive-in in the film’s opening scene. He’s the sort of guy who picks fights.
In this character and Harrelson’s portrayal of him, “Out of the Furnace” shows its strengths and its failings.
There are no small performances in this movie. Characters, motivated or otherwise, are mercurial, flying into rages, breaking into tears, none more that the psychotic Harlan. Cooper’s deal with the Devil was promising all his players lots of big, busy emotive close-ups. And to a one, they chew the scenery in their big moments. From Harrelson’s drawling, teeth-clogged ugliness to Affleck’s tirades about what he saw and did in Iraq and his bristling, boxer’s reaction to meeting Harlan, scenes just sort of blow up on us because that’s what the actors are allowed to do.
Forest Whitaker takes on a different voice and shows us more of his peerless range as the town police chief, in love with Russell’s old girlfriend and trying to keep the brothers out of harm’s way.
Dafoe, who doesn’t get nearly enough work, plays the most concerned loan shark this side of “Guys and Dolls.” How can a man who scares no one ever collect on a debt?
Bale, playing a dutiful, industrious son who carries guilt over the car crash and can’t even pull the trigger when deer hunting with his uncle (Sam Shepard), makes an interesting character study. But with so many characters, Cooper was content to simply sketch in around the edges, not letting the snatches of half-mumbled dialogue get at who this guy, or anybody else, really is.
The vivid rusting, roughneck milieu is as sharply drawn as the meth-belt Ozarks of “Winter’s Bone.” But as colorful as it and its people are, Cooper lets the brawling and the bigger-than-big performances get the better of him, and his story. “Out of the Furnace” feels undercooked as a result.