Devoid of virtually any admirable emotions, characters, or resolutions, “Out of the Furnace” is a grueling exploration into people and themes unworthy of attention. So much time is spent building insipid, disagreeable personas that when the pathos finally arrives it has withered into ineffectual tedium. Though “revenge thriller” may not be the genre label director Scott Cooper had in mind, “Out of the Furnace” clearly nose-dives down that path. With its pervading sense of dread and focus on retaliation, it can’t expect exemption from such designation. Yet any catharsis from vengeance is exhausted on despicable decisions and protagonists who are often indistinguishable from the villains. Bleak, raw, and uncompromising, “Out of the Furnace” parallels the atmosphere of the superior “Winter’s Bone,” but leaves out any hint of sacrifice, courage, and redemption.
Steel mill worker Russell Baze’s (Christian Bale) life goes from bad to worse when he’s involved in a drunk driving accident that lands him in jail. His girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) leaves him, his ailing father passes away, and his gambling addicted brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) resorts to underground fistfights to pay his debts. After he’s released from prison, Russell returns to his work at the mill and determines to turn his life around. But when Rodney goes missing after sinking into the high-stakes fights orchestrated by ruthless drug dealer Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), Russell seeks closure and retribution at any cost.
Everything about this film has been done before and exponentially more superiorly. It’s particularly embarrassing that “Out of the Furnace” steals so blatantly from popular films that haven’t faded from memory. Homage is one thing, but the purloined symbolism and character traits from “The Deer Hunter” are shocking: both are set in a small town, involve steel mill workers whose rites of passage involve war and the taking of lives, include love triangles fashioned out of absence, use violent games (one for coping, the other for money) to channel regret and depreciation, and feature the actual hunting of deer. The heavy focus on the criminal underbelly of Appalachian hill people is tacked on as a fascination for director Cooper, who seems personally amused by glorifying revenge and lawlessness and exposing the vicious villains engaged in seedy transgressions. Muted colors and grainy cinematography match the dreary activities, revealing a complete lack of artistic uniqueness.
Bale once again takes the reigns of a role steeped in griminess, destitution, and a seemingly inescapable system of lowlifes and alcohol diets, with a gun and willing collaborators never too far away. It’s no longer interesting to see his transformational performances when he reverts back to a former assignment – and here, a bland cast that fails to add anything fresh surrounds him (sympathetic parts are definitely unavailable). And this is taking into consideration the acquisition of a dirtbag trifecta, with Willem Dafoe and Harrelson rounding out perfectly cast white trash stereotypes. The pacing is also a hindrance, vexingly dragging out a simple revenge premise that is further frustrated by tragically innocent collateral damage, entirely attributed to Russell’s unintelligent disorganization. He’s not a coolly merciless avenger, but rather a sloppy, accidentally serendipitous killer.
– The Massie Twins (GoneWithTheTwins.com)