Friday, December 13, 2013

"Out of the Furnace" review

"Out of the Furnace" tells the most basic story you could possibly tell, given its setting. The story takes place in Braddock, PA which has a very isolated, desolate look with rows of sad-looking homes surrounding the towering, imposing steel mill where most of the townsfolk work. Braddock lies in the outskirts of Pittsburgh and the film puts much emphasis on just how grim this town is. The people who live here are simple, hard-working folk. They go to work at the mill, go to the bar to get loaded, then come home and go to sleep. This is repeated over and over, at least it is for our main character, Russell Baze (Christian Bale).

I liked the atmosphere of this film. The town itself feels deserving of a movie, with its characters trapped in their Rust Belt location, but I'm not sure this movie deserves them. The filmmakers do very, very little with their characters, stripping away anything that would make them interesting and focusing on the most basic details. So, ok, this is a movie that's going to focus more on its plot than the characters. That's fine. The problem is that you could pretty much predict the entire plot of this movie after watching the first five minutes. There's absolutely nothing surprising here. So many of these characters are given so little to do and its main character is literally kept on the sidelines for the entire first half of the film.

Russell is a hard-working honest man who happens to make the mistake of driving way too fast in way too drunk of a state one night. He winds up rear-ending a stationwagon, killing all the passengers in the car as a result. This lands him in jail. His girlfriend, who at this point we've only gotten to know for one brief scene, refuses to see him. Only his brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), comes to check on him every now and then. When Russell winds up in jail, we are stuck in jail with him. The jail scenes feel like they last about ten minutes, maybe, and this is literally all that we see: Russell gets visit from brother, then wanders around jail, another visit from brother, then wanders around outside, then an inmate attacks him, then he gets another visit from brother, later he gets a tattoo, then goes to church, then sees his brother again, then gets released. If co-writer/director Scott Cooper is trying to make the point that life in jail is pretty much the same as life in Braddock, then man, point taken. But, just because their town and the jail has absolutely zero life to them, does that mean the same for these characters? If everyone in this town was that bored and lifeless, why aren't they all committing suicide?

The only character who has a little bit of life to him is Rodney, played by Affleck. Casey Affleck always brings this weird energy to every movie he's in. He's not your average actor. He plays his characters in such an offbeat way, which makes him very interesting to watch even in a film like this. What I realized, after watching this movie, is that even though Casey Affleck is always interesting to watch, Christian Bale can be uninteresting. I've never felt that before. Granted, I've never seen "Terminator: Salvation" which I heard was a very bad movie, but I've never felt so let down by a Christian Bale performance. He's way too restrained, way too passive, and I blame this on the way his character is written. He's just never given anything interesting to do until the plot requires it. It's as if he's literally waiting for the plot around him to advance so that he can have something to do.

Back to Rodney. Rodney did four tours of duty in Iraq, and like Russell with jail, it's made clear that Rodney's life in Iraq and in Braddock are not that dissimilar. He is actually told by his mentor, bar-owner/bareknuckle fight bookie John Petty (Willem Dafoe) that he's better off in Iraq. We believe him. Rodney doesn't want to work at the steel mill with his brother, even though their father worked there his whole life. So, Rodney has nothing to do all day. Naturally, this means he gets involved in bare-knuckle fighting contests. Even though he reveals himself to be one hell of a fighter with a lot of guts, he's repeatedly forced to take a dive. The first time we see him fight, he winds up winning the match even though he was supposed to lose. This drives John Petty crazy. He's supposed to take a dive, goddammit, what is he doing? "When I'm fighting, it's all a blur," says Rodney. Well, that's convenient. I don't know how bare-knuckled matches work, but I would imagine if a young kid who's just done four tours of duty wants to fight, you let him fight. You let him win, too. You bet on him, maybe. But whatever.

Despite the fact that Rodney cannot take the simplest of orders, he wants to keep fighting anyway. He wants to fight a couple of weird mountain folk in New Jersey. Why? Because we were introduced to them earlier in the movie, that's why. John Petty repeatedly tells him, you do not want to mess with these guys. Their leader, Harlan (Woody Harrelson), is a psychopath. We personally know Harlan is a psychopath because, when we're first introduced to him, he force-feeds a hot dog down a woman's throat. He's a real charmer, this guy. So, of course, Rodney wants to get involved with him because he's a naive, stupid kid. After repeatedly telling him no, John finally relents and gives the kid the fight he wants. Why? Because he apparently has a death wish for the both of them.

Thing is, we know that Rodney is gonna wind up fighting these mountain folk people as soon as we see them in the movie. We are not given any other possibilities. If Rodney doesn't fight them, the movie would come to a complete halt because there's really nothing else happening here.

The only other thing we see is Russell stalking his former girlfriend (Zoe Saldana). When he gets released from prison, his girlfriend has already left him. Once again, we don't know anything about this girlfriend, but she goes from intimately holding him in bed from never wanting to speak to him again. Still, Russell remains hung up on her. She represents the only glimpse of hope in his life, and he can't have her. So, he gives up.

What's so frustrating about Russell Baze's character is that he's too passive, and not particularly smart either. What makes this a problem is that we don't know anything about Russell aside from a few surface details (he has a brother, a dying father, an uncle, works at steel mill, etc.). We are not given anything else. He remains a closed book, and this just doesn't make him very exciting to watch. So when Russell finally has purpose in this movie, you start to realize that he doesn't exactly possess the mental capability to successfully pull off what he's trying to do.

When his brother hasn't returned from New Jersey from his bare-knuckled fighting match, Russell and his uncle wind up driving to the location themselves in order to find him and find Harlan, who is most likely involved in the whole ordeal. While this is where the movie finally starts to pick up, the way Russell attempts to find Harlan is really kind of stupid. And the whole sequence of events really doesn't amount to much, other than a stern warning from one of the town's policeman who tells Russell not to come back. Don't worry, he actually won't. He's that passive.

I'm just going to stop there because there's no point in trying to make sense out of this plot and these characters. "Out of the Furnace" is a film that's so in love with its own grimness that it fails to mine anything interesting out of its subjects. The most interesting character in the film is underused, and everyone else is barely used at all. Sam Shepard, who plays Russell and Rodney's uncle, is given nothing to do. Nothing! Forrest Whitaker, who's apparently the only police officer in Braddock, barely has much to offer. And even though Woody Harrelson tries to chew as much scenery as possible, the bad guy he plays here is so goddamn one-note that he seems no different than any other bad guy that you've seen in other movies.

There's nothing in "Out of the Furnace" that hasn't been done before. It places so much emphasis on plot details which makes you think something interesting will eventually unfold, but nothing does. The movie makes Braddock seem impossibly desolate. This might be an economically ravaged town, but there's no way these characters are that lifeless.

Everything about this film feels calculated. When Rodney is off to New Jersey, Russell doesn't know where he is. He treats this lack of knowledge with such passivity that you wonder why he cares when Rodney winds up missing. What makes it worse is that Rodney actually leaves a note in his room, addressed to Russell where he actually says he just needs to do "one more fight" and then he'll work at the steel mill with him. Not only is this such an unnecessary detail, but it also manages to make this movie even more cliched than it was before. Incredible.

There is one time, before Rodney is missing, that Russell is given something to do. He and his uncle grab a couple of shotguns and go hunting for deer at the very same time Rodney goes to NJ with John Petty. We know it's happening at the same time because it is cut that way. First, a shot of Russell and his uncle driving one way. Then, a shot of Rodney and John Petty driving the other way. They repeat these shots multiple times. Yes, they're both driving further away from each other and something bad is going to happen to Rodney, we get it, thanks for making it blatantly obvious the entire time. The intercutting between Rodney fighting and Russell deer-hunting just makes it even worse.

I think the main problem with this movie is that because it's so deliberately paced, you think it would be a bit more subtle. That is not the case here. Everything is as straight-forward as possible. A good example of a straight-forward movie would be "Prisoners," which is also very plot-heavy but it has enough surprises and left-turns that it keeps you guessing throughout. "Out of the Furnace," on the other hand, is devoid of surprises.

Either this movie should have been 10-15 minutes shorter, or thirty minutes longer where the characters are given something to do that goes beyond the basic plot line. Because, honestly, I actually liked this world. I like the idea of this film. I know I've been hard on it throughout this review, but really, I like where this film could have gone. The movie that unfolded in my head was way more interesting than what actually unfolded. There were so many ways they could've salvaged this and yet they never did anything here that was unexpected. Plus, we are never given the chance to get emotionally involved with these characters. I've never seen Scott Cooper's first film "Crazy Heart," but it garnered a lot of awards and praise for its star Jeff Bridges, so I assume Cooper is a talented fella. But when you manage to make even Christian Bale look lifeless, that's something that's hard to forgive.

Grade: D+

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