There are certain buzz words that worry me when they’re used to describe a film. “Quirky” is one. “Gritty” is another.
It’s not that I have anything against grit (quirk, however, can take a hike), I just think that if your goal at the outset is to make a “gritty” film, you’re doing something wrong. “Grittiness” should be an organic byproduct of the film’s journey, not the destination itself.
Which brings me to Out of the Furnace. It’s directed by Scott Cooper, who did Crazy Heart, which I loved. That film was gritty, too, in its own way. It had a very credible sense of the seedy life of a has-been musician. It also had great music, that surprising central relationship, and a wonderful performance by Jeff Bridges.
Out of the Furnace, on the other hand, simply doesn’t pass the smell test for me. Its grit feels self-conscious, self-congratulatory. Worse still, it doesn’t have anything new to say.
The film starts with a scene that sets up Woody Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat as one scary dude. I liked the backdrop of the scene—a drive-in movie theater, as a B horror film plays on the screen—but the details felt overly familiar. The woman he’s with doesn’t realize what a hair-trigger temper he has. She teases him, he assaults her, in a particularly horrific way (forcing her to swallow a hot-dog whole), a do-gooder tries to step in, and Harlan beats the stuff out of him. Yawn, he’s a psychopath.
We then meet brothers Russell and Rodney Baze (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, respectively). Rodney is just back from Iraq, but about to be stop-lossed. He’s a lost soul, haunted by what he has seen in battle, bitter about his treatment by the military. Russell is a decent guy (almost too decent), who takes care of his dying father, works hard at the local mill, and loves his kid brother and his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana).
The impossibly beautiful Saldana—wearing minimal makeup and dressed way down—is another red flag. I’m not suggesting that a beautiful woman like Saldana couldn’t possibly be involved with Bale’s Russell. After all, even with a straggly beard and sunken cheekbones—a leftover from The Fighter?—he’s no slouch himself. But all these beautiful people adds to the sense that the actors are playing dress-up.
We see exactly where this is all going, with the twitchy younger brother getting entangled with the dangerous Harlan DeGroat, and the solid older brother having to step in and try to save him.
Wilem Dafoe is on hand, as the bar owner/bookie who sets the action in motion against his better judgment—allowing Rodney to participate in a bare-knuckle fight ring overseen by Harlan—and watches, with dread, as it all goes down exactly as he feared. Sam Shepherd is there, too, as Rodney’s stalwart uncle.
These are all good actors and talented people involved, but I just wasn’t feeling it. Out of the Furnace wears its “authenticity” like a badge of honor. It wants to be a serious examination of poverty and the desperate things it makes people do, but it secretly wants to be a bad-ass revenge pic, too. Neither take is particularly fresh. But hey, at least it’s not quirky.