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Why “Out of the Furnace” Will Make You Fall Asleep

Kevin Noonan | Sunday, December 8, 2013

Though it likely and shouldn’t win any Oscars and will probably bomb at the box office, “Out of the Furnace” will always hold a special place in my heart – it’s the first time since graduating from diapers and grade school that I’ve ever fallen knockout, drop dead, full on snoring asleep in a movie theatre.

On one hand, an argument could be made that if I was dreamland for a good 15 minutes in the middle of the movie then I probably can’t give an objective review, but I disagree. I would argue that it provides a perfect anecdote for just how earth-shatteringly boring this supposed awards season contender was.

The poorly labeled drama-thriller stars Christian Bale as Russell Baze, an honest and decent steel mill worker who goes to jail after a few drinks lead to a car accident that kills two people. His brother Rodney, played by Casey Affleck, is a soldier whose repeated tours to Iraq leave him more and more damaged and mentally unstable.

The film is ostensibly about the dynamic of the two brothers living in western Pennsylvania, neither able to escape their lives for something better. After he is released from prison, Russell learns that his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) has left him for Forrest Whitaker’s police chief (real-life age difference: 17 years, real-life believability: zero), and the steel mill is closing, so he knows his future is dim.

Rodney can’t get over the horrors he experienced in war (which, in one scene, he graphically lists off with over-acted emotion that makes for one of the least effective “horrors of war” scenes in any movie I’ve ever seen), and the Army isn’t doing much for him now that he’s home.

On that level, the film had promise. If the story had focused on the parallels and conflicts between these two brothers, it might have pulled off a watchable drama. After all, along with Bale, Affleck, Saldana and Whitaker, the cast includes Woody Harrelson as a brutal hillbilly drug kingpin, Sam Shepard as Russell and Rodney’s uncle and Willem Dafoe as a local bar owner and petty criminal. All together, that’s a lot of acting talent – two Oscars and another five nominations, to be exact.

Instead of that dynamic, though, the film focuses more on Russell’s increasingly sad post-prison life. Rodney decides to make money in underground boxing, which quickly escalates to him traveling to the inbred, “their own breed of justice up” hills of New Jersey, where Harrelson’s drug lord is judge, jury and executioner. There’s some deal that Rodney and Dafoe’s characters make that involves Rodney taking a fall in a fight, and this is supposed to wipe out Dafoe’s debt with Harrelson’s character.

Long story short, and though it does feel like an eternity to get there it’s actually in the first half of the film still, Harrelson kills them all. The rest of the film follows Russell’s struggle with what to do to avenge his brother’s death.

I listed off the astoundingly talented cast earlier, but it seems like to this point I haven’t mentioned many of them in the plot of the film. And it’s because there’s almost no point to having them in this movie.

Shepard’s uncle character does literally nothing. It’s a total waste of time and space to even explain who he is. He goes along with Russell on one trip, a fake drug buy that also had no real point in the movie, but the whole scene could have been done without him. Saldana’s girlfriend character sort of shows us how down in the dumps Russell is after being released from prison, but it draws away from any of the actual story so much that it’s more of a distraction than anything. Forrest Whitaker decided to spend the entire movie auditioning for Batman, talking in gravelly, undistinguishable tones for no real reason. He provides some stiffly delivered exposition that the film didn’t really need and a voice of conscience at the very end that doesn’t make any sense.

All in all, this could’ve been a three-person film, and it still would’ve been terrible, but at least it would’ve been shorter.

The rumor is that Christian Bale turned this role down at first, then later accepted after he heard the writer-director, Scott Cooper, wrote the role specifically for him. In retrospect, he should’ve just let it go.

Contact Kevin Noonan at knoonan2@nd.edu