We need more directors willing to take risks with films like Get Out.
"Out of the Furnace," about two suffering brothers (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) in Pennsylvania steel country, hits some of the same notes as "The Deer Hunter" and Bruce Springsteen's early albums—"Darkness at the Edge of Town" and "Nebraska" especially. Unfortunately this film has none of their urgency or sense of control; for long stretches it just doesn't seem to have any idea what, exactly, it wants to say, or be.
The trailers promise a white-hot tale of revenge, with Christian Bale's butt-kicking Jesus-with-a-rifle avenging some unspecified horrible fate that has befallen his younger brother, a veteran who has fallen in with backwoods gangsters (including Willem Dafoe and Woody Harrelson) and taken up brawling to pay off gambling debts. But the revenge portion of the film takes up maybe the last half-hour, and plays out with a haphazard literal-mindedness. The rest seems torn between two modes: the grimy yet intimate art-house drama, and the star-flattering martyr's tale of a man more sinned against than sinning. Performances as strong as the ones the cast gives here belong in a more less cluttered, deeper film.
The first hour of this movie from director-cowriter Scott Cooper is atmospheric throat-clearing, establishing the obligation that hero Russell Baze (Bale) feels toward his family. His widowed old father is dying. His younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) has a gambling problem, and has fallen in with a very bad crowd that includes local nightclub owner and criminal fixer John Petty (Dafoe) and Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a New Jersey hillbilly who lives in the Ramapo mountain forest with his gang. The brutal prologue to "Out of the Furnace" finds Harlan sexually terrorizing a date at a drive-in, then beating a man who tries to intervene. The scene effectively establishes that Harlan is not to be messed with, but it also has a whiff of macho art-house pretension, as if somebody saw "Killer Joe" and wondered what would happen if you put the harrowing climax of that film at the start of another one. It's also dramatically unnecessary, as Harrelson exudes menace even when he's not moving or speaking.
Russell is positioned as a figure who suffers for the sins of others. Fate treats him as a human pincushion. When the movie opens, the hero has a loving girlfriend named Lena (Zoe Saldana) and decent job at the mill (even though the economic crash of 2008, an increasingly important event in recent American cinema, is scaring everyone to death). Soon after paying off his brother's criminal debtors, Russell lands in prison thanks to a mishap that wasn't really his fault. He endures brutality there, and emerges years later. His dad is dead, his former girlfriend has taken up with a local cop (Forest Whitaker, doing a bizarre "character" voice that makes him sound like a Muppet), and his younger brother, now a psychologically devastated war veteran, is bare-knuckle brawling in Harlan's secret matches to pay off his gambling debts.