Friday, January 10, 2014

Out of the Furnace - **

Out of the Furnace, Scott Cooper's follow-up to the mostly good Crazy Heart, is full of the same visual richness as that film was. Set amongst low-lifes and good folks with bad luck in an impoverished mining town. It gets right what a lot of Hollywood films get wrong; Christian Bale plays a normal guy with a welding gig without making a big deal of it... Rather than 'designing' a costume for him and fashioning his hair just-so, it looks like the filmmakers just sent him to a thrift store to grab some clothes off the rack and wear them for a few days straight while letting his hair grow. It's a small detail, but important in registering the film's authenticity. Cooper and his crew nail all of these details, and though the direction felt a little stale, the film still managed to look fresh because of them.

Unfortunately Furnace features the laziest screenplay of the year, complete with the third-act cop-outs that almost ruined Crazy Heart. Bale plays Russell Baze, an honest Joe who briefly goes to prison for killing a few people in a drunk driving accident, an interesting turn in the film that essentially goes nowhere, adding nothing to the character or themes. Russell was on his way home from covering for his brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), paying off a scumbag loan-shark (Willem Dafoe) who has Rodney throwing underground fights to pay off his debts, scenes which contain more superfluous plot construction than is necessary and which isn't properly utilized. Eventually the film has Russell out for revenge after Rodney and the loan-shark are killed for no apparent reason by some crazy hillbillies who run the New Jersey chapter of this underground fighting ring, but not before one of them butt-dials a buddy with his cell-phone, leaving a voicemail of the murder... Ugh.

There's so much more that is crammed into Furnace's two-hour run-time, but it's impossible to briefly contextualize all of it, mainly because Cooper and his co-writer can't even find a way to contextualize any of it in the film itself. There's a sub-plot with Zoe Saldana as Russell's ex-girlfriend who left him while he was in prison, and another featuring her new boyfriend, a thankless role filled by Forest Whitaker, who I swore was Saldana's father for most of the film due to a lack of clarity and the fact that they barely ever look at each other, let alone touch. It's a confusing dynamic in a pointless sub-plot, only one of several in the film, which together pull so much focus from the story Cooper is trying to tell that it could only barely be said that he tells one at all.

What's worse is that what little there is that is cohesive is riddled with bad dialogue, cardboard characters, narrative convenience, and what can only be described as a lack of umph. It's obvious where every scene is going as soon as it begins, and too many of them are over-the-top or under the mat, completely lacking the edge that it needs for the suspense it wants to build. Fortunately, a top-notch cast delivers all of this with enough conviction to make enough of Furnace compelling enough, even when it's misfiring, so when Russell runs into Woody Harrelson's Harlan DeGroat, the leader of the psycho hillbillies and says, "You got a problem with me?" and Harlan replies, "I got a problem with everybody," only a piece of us laughs at such one-dimensional absurdity, while the rest of us shrugs it off and moves on. And that's pretty much how it goes in Out of the Furnace.

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