For a large portion of 2013, Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace was one of the year's most anticipated releases. It's taken 4 years for Cooper to return from his successful writing/directing debut, Crazy Heart, one that earned Jeff Bridges an Academy Award for Best Actor. This time around he brings an army of reinforcements with an all-star cast of past Oscar Winners and Nominees including Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard and Willem Dafoe. And although early reviews have been extremely mixed with many critics openly speaking out against Cooper's sophomore effort, I'm here to stand up and say that Out of the Furnace is by no means a bad movie. However, it fails to mask many of its sub-par elements.
Christian Bale stars as Russell Baze, a blue collar mill worker who's struggling to make ends meet in the economically depressed steel town of Braddock, PA. His brother Rodney (Affleck) is a troubled soldier who bears the psychological scars from multiple tours in Iraq. But as Rodney refuses to give in to the steel-worker lifestyle, he finds himself caught up in a dangerous underworld of organized bare-knuckle fighting run by a ruthless criminal named Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson). When Rodney leaves one day and never returns, Russell must desperately take matters into his own hands and confront the ring-leader, DeGroat.
The backbone of Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace is the director's remarkable capacity to develop strong central characters. It was evident in his first film, where Jeff Bridges stole the show. But here, Cooper has more pieces to work with and, for the most part, he does an excellent job of giving each character a purpose and a voice throughout the movie. Another productive aspect is the manner in which the feature begins. Out of the Furnace is an unmistakably dark and saddening film, a tone that Cooper embraces from the opening scene and never looks back. And as the feature progresses, its story is both captivating and deep, impressively developing in a rather unforeseeable fashion that helps hook the audience. With Bale, Affleck and Harrelson all in premier form, Out of the Furnace is a supremely acted and gripping tale of despair.
Despite an alluring appeal, Cooper's second effort is tainted by many shortcomings. The Baze brothers are both wonderfully developed characters that resonate with the audience, it's Cooper's specialty. Yet, the writer/director leaves plenty to be desired with Willem Dafoe's massively unfulfilled sleazy character, John Petty. Furthermore, the feature is haunted by second rate dialogue, unnecessary inclusions (i.e. Rodney's letter to his brother) and unrealistic sequences that become impossible to overlook (what a convenient butt-dial). Moreover, the scene where Russell searches out DeGroat by organizing a drug deal is so off the mark, it's unforgivable. Clearly, Out of the Furnace is bogged down by blatant errors. However, its intriguing subject matter and strong performances are enough to sustain the film.
While many hoped that Cooper's follow-up to Crazy Heart would shape the awards season outlook, the truth is it won't. In fact, Out of the Furnace will ultimately stand as nothing more than an entertaining film with a fair share of miscues. There are elements to enjoy and reasons to watch, but keep your expectations in check.