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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, April 21, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

Christian Bale stars in "Out of the Furnace," now playing.

"Out of the Furnace" loses heat as it goes along

For about its first hour, I was fairly on board the new Rust Belt drama "Out of the Furnace." The acting from the alarmingly qualified cast was great. The visuals and direction were authentically gritty, and the story, though with its flaws, had me hooked as well. There's even an early nod to "Midnight Meat Train," a bizarro 2008 Bradley Cooper/Vinnie Jones horror flick I hold dear to my heart for no particularly good reason.

I had myself all prepared to show this to last year's much-maligned mood-filled blunt force object of political commentary "Killing Them Softly" to show it how mixing story and subtext can be done. But then I realized where the movie was going. The path – one of cliché and mildly ridiculous revenge thriller pulp – became clear and obvious, and I couldn't have wanted it to stop more. But it didn't. Now, I'm left with a movie that's by no means bad but simply disappointing, a passable waste of exceptional potential.

A weary, whispy-voiced Christian Bale stars as Russell Baze, a mill worker trying to make ends meet in his economically beat down Pennsylvania town. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq War vet, is having a harder time of it. He's taken to gambling, which has put him in a hole. Russell tries his best to protect and help his little bro, even if that means taking substantial chunks of his own not-so-hefty paychecks to settle Rodney's debts.

After a night of drinking, however, Russell gets into a car crash, killing the family in the other car and earning him several mentally and physically punishing years in prison. He eventually gets out, but many in his life have moved on. His girlfriend (Zoe Saldana, who still looks like she was pulled out of a cleaner, nicer movie despite the makeup's efforts) left him for the town's gruff but understanding police chief (Forest Whitaker, doing an unconvincing impression of a professional gravel gargler).

Far more concerning is Rodney, who in his desperation, roped himself into fighting in the area's bloody underground bare-knuckle boxing circuit. Willem Dafoe plays his concerned small-time bookie.

Up to this point, "Out of the Furnace" is a solid, compellingly brooding crime drama about two men – and a whole class of people, really – lost, trying to get back on their feet in the ruins of America. Russell is stuck trying to recover from his one horrible mistake, while Rodney is left to his own devices trying to live a normal life after experiencing the inhumane horrors of war. He even notes it might be "safer over in Iraq" considering the desperate times they're going through. Both of their lives are grim, and their ceilings aren't getting any higher.

Bale is top notch, getting to be a bit more exhaustedly natural than some of his flashier, transformative roles allow him to be. It feels like he's being the character more than simply showily playing it. Affleck is very good as well, using his reedy voice to bring across the testy desperation crawling under the skin of his falling apart ex-military tough guy. Most importantly, the two have a very earnest sense of brother camaraderie, which is crucial considering where the story goes.

The first half comes with its issues, mainly the story components lacking some cohesion and edging near overheating (see: the opening scene, involving both hot dog-related violence and violence of the classic fist-related variety). The brothers' honest relationship, however, tends to steer these things right.

Plus, director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart") gives "Out of the Furnace" an authentically raw, grimy grit that makes you want to schedule a tetanus shot immediately afterward. I'm convinced the film wasn't shot on film or digital, but on 35 mm strips of rust and paint chips. Cooper captures every grey smoke-billowing tower and rusted slab of metal, turning Rust Belt Pennsylvania into a character of its own, just as abandoned by its country as our two leads.

Eventually, however, Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby's script sends Rodney up into the mountains to fight for ruthless redneck drug kingpin Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). And when he disappears into the mountains – sending Russell and their father figure Red (Sam Shepard, for added warm grit and weariness) out to get him back, justice system be damned – so does "Out of the Furnace," giving into competently made but trite revenge thriller pulp.

Russell and his father turn into genre-typical men of vengeance, abandoning rationale, going into the mountains themselves and buying drugs in the hopes of getting closer to DeGroat, who with his spurts of random vicious violence and growling drug habits, is a cartoon of grimy redneck menace. Even Rodney mocks it, noting "Am I supposed to find him scary because he sucks a lollypop?" He's not as much a real character or human being as he is a final boss.

While Harrelson attempts to act up a menace storm, the story simply turns rote. Whitaker's role turns into the usual concerned police chief who warns against taking the law into one's own hands and who will most certainly turn up at the final climactic standoff. Church sermons deliver timely thematic messages. A dramatic letter reveals (in voiceover, no groan-inducingly less) that this was, of course, Rodney's last fight before planning to go straight and clean for additional cliché sad poignancy.

The film's transformation into a genre picture wouldn't be so harmful if it tried something new. Instead, it's just another revenge pic – complete with an admittedly tense climactic shoot-out – if maybe just a bit more serious and dour than the rest in the hopes of hinting at meaning or complexity under its simplistic good guy/bad guy bloodlust.

As that, "Out of the Furnace" is still a fairly decent. It's well acted – especially Bale, who does his best to ground the second half's genre fare – with a few tense exchanges and strong visual character. Anybody intrigued by the first half's drama (maybe thinking it's a higher profile take on "Winter's Bone"), however, will be disappointed by the plot turning into a typical, borderline-preposterous revenge fantasy.

The movie we end with is disappointingly different from the movie we start with, trading out the characters' real, complicated inner demons and battles for conventional Hollywood ones far less complicated but far easier to vanquish for the audience's pleasure.

Theaters and showtimes for Out of the Furnace Rating:


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