By Rob Cox
---- — FROM THE DEN AT HOME – Considering the actors involved – Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker and Willem Defoe – it would seem almost absurd to expect anything less than mesmerizing performances from 2013’s “Out of the Furnace.”
And indeed, director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) guides his cast through this violent tale of family ties, organized crime and vengeance with a skillful, subtle perception of human nature, eliciting award-worthy performances – especially from Affleck.
Affleck plays Rodney Baze, Jr., an Iraqi War veteran whom we first meet just before he’s deployed. Anyone who’s known a combat vet before deployment and knows him after is apt to readily identify with Rodney.
He’s little more than a boy before going to war, whereas there’s a decided edge to post-Iraq Rodney and a bare-knuckle rage that leaves viewers wondering who he’ll pummel next.
Rodney’s older brother, Russell (Bale), is in prison for vehicular manslaughter when Rodney ships out and is still there upon his return. That’s unfortunate, because Russell has always acted as Rodney’s guardian angel.
Russell earns release not long after Rodney comes home, but is unable to prevent little brother from becoming involved in underground, “bare-knuckle” street fighting as a way to both pay off his bookie (Dafoe) and act out his violent inclinations.
Russell wants Rodney to come work at the local mill like their recently-deceased father and like Russell himself, who returned to work there after his release.
Rodney wants no part of mill work, though; he’s far too talented a fighter, with too much earning potential -- and too much rage. All that talent and all that rage leads little brother afoul of Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson), a homicidal, psychopathic drug dealer who runs a lucrative bare-knuckle fighting operation in the New Jersey mountains. Will Russell be able to protect Rodney from this sociopath?
“Furnace” was obviously written to revolve around Russell and his quest for absolution and vengeance, but although the ever-talented Bale capably carries the picture where required, Affleck almost steals the show – what little there is to steal, anyway.
Russell ultimately becomes a man who loses seemingly everything, including the love of his life (Saldana), and is thus left with no reason to remain on the straight and narrow. What path will he choose?
If “Furnace’s” performances are so award-worthy, one might ask, WHY, exactly, didn’t it receive any nominations? The answer lies in both the film’s pacing and in a story that lacks focus.
“Furnace” meanders along with no real plot and an ever-present sense that the narrative is headed for some far-more specific and concrete conclusion than is ever actually reached. There’s no argument Cooper – who co-wrote the script with Brad Ingelsby – nails character motivation and nuance; but in creating these people and in helping his cast breathe them into life, the director falls woefully short in regards to effective storytelling.
The result is an odd, ultimately unsatisfying mix of tedium and fascination. Without these performances, in fact, “Furnace” would amount to a completely forgettable bore.
“Out of the Furnace” won’t stick with you long after its ending, but it’s a can’t-look-away experience from start to finish thanks to the merits of its cast.
Rating: Bark-and-a-half (**1/2)
Runtime: 116 minutes
Rated R for intense violence, gore, language and sexuality
Rating System Explained: Rabies = 0; Yip = *; Bark = **; Howl = ***; Lone-wolf howl = ****; Leader of the pack = *****
Contact: Rob Cox 812-663-3111 x7011; email@example.com