Out of the Furnace | Director Scott Cooper | Score: 5.0
Here’s a helpful tip for all you burgeoning film directors who would dearly love some big names for your next low-budget indie: Just make sure your last film — an equally small affair — features a beloved actor who wins an Oscar on the strength of his performance. If you scope out the names in Scott Cooper’s first film after making the Academy-endowed Crazy Heart which won star Jeff Bridges the little gold statue, you’ll go quite a ways down the cast list before you don’t recognize someone. There’s Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana and Sam Shepard; hell, even Forest Whitaker makes an appearance in a pretty small role.
The problem with all this high-power gloss is, the film is desperately trying to be anything but Hollywood glossy. The story centers around a pair of brothers, the good-natured, stand-up older brother Russell (Bale), who works as his father did in a small town steel mill somewhere in rural Pennsylvania; and the squirrely, PTSD-afflicted Rodney (Affleck), who returns from his last tour of duty in Iraq with twitchy instincts and a sizable debt he desperately needs to pay off to local power broker John Petty (Dafoe). After Russell does some time for a drunk driving accident, he returns home to find his unstable bro has taken to loosely organized bare-knuckle beat downs as his new vocation.
Naturally, things go from bad to worse, and before too long, Rodney convinces Petty to take him up to New Jersey for a potentially big-money fight that unfortunately requires them both to become involved with the preternaturally amoral and hyper-violent Harlan DeGroat (Harrellson, in full skuzzbag mode), the patriarch of an inbred clan of drug dealing mountain low-lifes. When things go horribly awry, it’s Rodney, having learned his beautiful, loving girlfriend (Saldana) has taken up with a local constable (Whitaker) in his absence, who has to try and make everything right again.
Shot in a baleful small town as it is, the film works very hard to convince you of its veracity, both emotional and physical. Bale, with long stringy hair and a hang-dog balbo mustache, can almost pass, but one look at the stunning Saldana, or baby-faced Affleck and that delicate authenticity begins to bleed out. By the time Whitaker shows up, the town feels like a low-rent, cold-weather version of what it must be like to stroll through Supperclub in L.A. on a Friday night, with a recognizable face behind every corner.
An embarrassment of riches for a cast list is hardly a death knell for a film, of course, even one that purports to be about hardscrabble, blue-collar towns such as this (just take a peek at the upcoming August: Osage County), the script, however, penned by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby, is another matter. You can feel how much Cooper wants his scenes to crackle with life and energy, but when even such luminous talents as these are forced to perform scenes that feel altogether obligatory, the results aren’t much better than if you stocked the frame with amateurs.
Very little happens here that you don’t see coming a mile away — two miles away, to be more accurate — and by the end, when we finally have our explosive last confrontation, Cooper seems to have really lost his sense of what he wants the film to be about.
Along the way, there are certainly some good moments — a tearful scene with a miserable Bale and apologetic Saldana is nearly good enough to ward off a good deal of the film’s other foibles, and Harrelson, determined to bury his once cute and harmless affect once and for all in films such as Seven Psychopaths and this one, is movingly heinous, a dope-injecting lunatic with absolutely no regard for anyone else — but even these are buried under the grinding churn of Cooper’s forced melodrama.
One of the pleasant surprises about Crazy Heart was the way it refused to fall into convention for the sake of crowd-pleasing. Cooper seemed happy to let Bad Blake dictate his own terms in how the story was to go, which gave the whole enterprise a jolt of naturalism. In this failed story of violence and heartbreak, natural comes packaged in a plastic baggie.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
Bypass theater ticket lines. Buy movie tickets in advance at Fandango.com.