REVIEW: 'Out of the Furnace'


There’s a scene in the first act of Out of the Furnace where a character, quoting a passage from the Bible, uses the word “iniquities”. At this point in the film, Christian Bale’s steelworker character is seeking solace after the death of his father. The scene is very brief, and as a result, we’re not quite sure whether the words are comforting him.

But even though the scene probably isn’t all that important to the overall scope of the film, the word “iniquities” stuck with me. It wasn't until I’d left the theatre that I realized the word is a rather good way to understand Scott Cooper’s new drama, a methodical consideration of the relationship between two brothers, and the decisions that separate them.

Christian Bale stars as Russell Baze, a level-headed, responsible man living in Braddock, Pennsylvania. Russell’s brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is a disturbed Iraq veteran whose gambling debts are piling up, driving him to compete in illegal prize fights. Russell is more than content to work in the mill that employed their father, while Rodney refuses, feeling that his country owes him something for his four tours of duty in the army.

As Rodney is drawn ever further into an underground society of backwoods criminals, Russell struggles to understand why his brother would throw everything away for the sake of pride. Even so, Russell is forced to act when Rodney goes missing, since all the evidence points towards a vicious local thug played by Woody Harrelson, someone even the police steer clear of.

Casey Affleck as Rodney Baze, who competes in illegal prizefights to cover a debt.

Like the freight trains that crisscross the landscapes of the film, Out of the Furnace lumbers along a straight track towards a violent end. As soon as we’re introduced to Harrelson’s character in the film’s opening scene, we know that it must end with some sort of swift retribution.  The real question is what it means for all the people unlucky enough to become wrapped up in it.

That leads me back to the word “iniquities”. One definition is “grossly unfair behaviour”, which works well in this case. Out of the Furnace shows us how grossly unfair it is that men like Rodney can be sent off to war for multiple tours, and then arrive home with little knowledge of how to apply themselves once they’re no longer needed as warriors.

The film then deals with the unjust results of Rodney’s return, as Russell is left to defend his brother against his bad decisions, and then go searching for him when others take advantage of the situation. We also see how a number of innocent lives are drawn into the mix, later falling by the wayside as Russell and Harlan (Harrelson’s thug) pursue each other.

Next, we watch as the character played by Bale slowly spirals downwards, transforming from a hardworking, noble man into a tortured soul driven only by revenge. And before the credits even start to roll, it’s not hard to draw connections between the iniquities faced by the characters in the film and those faced by real Americans every day.

Bale and Affleck's brother characters are driven apart by bad luck and pride

That is perhaps the most important thing to remember about Out of the Furnace. It doesn’t give us a particularly new story, or one whose outcome can’t be guessed well ahead of time. But it does act as yet another reminder of the many lives that intermingle every day, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Scoot Cooper executes the whole affair with the same professionalism (though perhaps not the same depth of character) as he did in 2009’s Crazy Heart. Cooper, alongside his A-list producers Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio, have attracted a powerful cast to accompany Bale, Affleck and Harrelson: we also see Zoë Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepard.

At times, however, it seems that the Cooper isn’t quite sure what to do with all his actors. It would have been nice to see more from Saldana, who is sidelined mid-way through, or to hear more reaction from the uncle played by Shepard, who stoically accompanies Russell as he pursues his revenge.  Perhaps with a slightly more fleshed-out group of supporting characters, Out of the Furnace could rise above the many other gritty American films of the past few years. As it is, the film gets two and a half stars out of four.

 Two and a Half Stars

Did you see Out of the Furnace? If so, what did you think? Were you sucked in by the lead performances by Bale and Affleck? Will Harrelson be a contender for Best Supporting Actor? Or do you think the film will fade away? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!