Out of the Furnace ✮✮

… Into the Quagmire

by Glenn Lovell

Some directors are just too big for their britches. The intriguing sounding “Out of the Furnace,” shot in the Appalachian Rust Belt, cried out to be a tough, stripped-down exploitation number on the order of such “B” classics as “First Blood” and “Rolling Thunder.” You know the drill: Hero is done an outrageous injustice in the opening moments and then spends the next hour or so exacting cruel, in-kind revenge.

Furnace

Harrelson and Bale

Unfortunately, Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Get Low”) had something more ambitious in mind, something like a cross between “The Deer Hunter” and last year’s underrated back-hills epic “Lawless.” And, of course, big movies require big casts. So Cooper pulled out all stops and assembled a blue-ribbon ensemble that included such reliables as Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Willem Defoe, Forest Whitaker and, at his glaring, beady-eyed best, Woody Harrelson.

Bale and Affleck play white sheep/black sheep brothers in North Braddock, Penna., a blue-collar burg buckling under harsh economic conditions (the year is 2006). Bale’s Russell Blaze, like his dying father before him, works in the steel mill; Affleck’s Rodney enlisted in the military and went to Iraq. Now home and at loose ends, Rodney is as embittered about his country abandoning him as Russell is stoic.

Will the stay-at-home brother keep his wandering sibling out of trouble? Of course not. Rodney is hell-bent on messin’ up. Egged on by a local loan shark (Willem Dafoe), he turns to bare-knuckle boxing to settle his debts. His suicidal bent makes him a natural in the ring; he doesn’t appear to feel pain. This talent inevitably brings him to the attention of a backwoods loony-drug dealer named DeGroat (Harrelson).

“You got a problem with me?” older brother Russell asks when given the skank eye. “I got a problem with everybody,” replies DeGroat, who lives deep in the mountains for a reason.

“Out of the Furnace” runs just under two hours. Given all the loose ends and the plot’s stutter-step progression, I’m guessing the director’s cut came in at around three and change. Cooper and co-screenwriter Brad Ingelsby cover what feels like two-to-three years in the lives of the Blaze boys. Rodney goes back to Iraq for another tour; Russell goes to prison for vehicular manslaughter and loses his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) to the town cop (Whitaker). Rodney returns and falls out with DeGroat. Russell reaches for his hunting rifle.

Though he keeps working, Cooper has yet to make a great or even good film. To hammer home the point that North Braddock has fallen on hard times, he tosses in about 20 cutaways to boarded-up stores and blighted neighborhoods. He’s even less disciplined when it comes to his cast. Bale looks, well, baleful in the lead, like he wants someone to rein him in. He tears up at the drop of a hat. Ditto Affleck, whose character never really adds up. Given his size, he’s definitely an unlikely choice for a backwoods brawler. Dafoe, who for some reason sports a flip hairdo, talks a lot about what he’s not going to do, then always does the opposite. It’s a toss-up as to who has the more thankless assignment, Whitaker or Sam Shepherd, who wanders in and out as the brothers’ uncle. Whitaker is painful to watch. His town sheriff spends most of the time staring at the floor, as if he’s embarrassed to be part of this venture.

Harrelson, in contrast, seems to be having a grand ol’ time. His backwoods baddie is so pit-bull vicious, we know immediately that he’ll not only come to a bad end but that it’ll be especially prolonged and painful. At least here, Cooper and company don’t disappoint.

Lovell, longtime movie critic for the San Jose Mercury News, teaches film studies at De Anza College in Northern California. He has written about film for Variety, the L.A. Times and, most recently, the Boston Globe.

OUT OF THE FURNACE ✮✮ With Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepherd, Forest Whitaker. Directed by Scott Cooper; scripted by Brad Ingelsby, Cooper. 116 min. R rated (for profanity, violence)

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