There's the old Howard Hawks quote about what makes a good movie: three great scenes and no bad ones. “Out of the Furnace” is the exception that disproves the rule. It has three great scenes and no bad ones, per se, but has wall-to-wall flat ones. This culminates in a picture that would have been modest in success at best, but ends up uninteresting and forgettable in its current state. “Out of the Furnace” is no disaster, but it doesn't achieve what it hopes to achieve, and it has no one to blame but itself.
First, the good stuff: “Out of the Furnace” has a pre-title sequence wherein Woody Harrelson does with a hot dog what Matthew McConaughey does with a chicken leg in “Killer Joe.” It isn't quite as disgusting, but the movie's only beginning, you know?
The act of debasement happens at a drive-in, and when someone in the next car sees Harrelson smacking a woman around he tries to intervene. Harrelson reveals himself to be a crazed violent monster, and the scene is shot from behind with the wide movie proscenium creating a screencap-ready juxtaposition (some research revealed the projected film to be “Midnight Meat Train”). It's creepy and scary and it all looks really cool.
The second great scene is a sibling argument between Christian Bale and Casey Affleck soon after the death of their father. Bale is the hard-working hump at a Pennsylvania steel mill just released from prison for involuntary manslaughter. He's got no prospects, but at least his head's screwed on straight. Affleck is the typical hot-headed brother whose drive for a quick buck always spells doom in these blue collar tales. He's just back from another tour in Iraq and after some needling from Bale pulls back a bit of the PTSD curtain he's been living behind. In three or four lines of descriptive dialogue he reminds us that no one who hasn't been there has a right to judge anyone who's cleaned up piles of blasted limbs.
The final great scene is when Bale has a heart-to-heart with his ex-girlfriend Zoe Saldana. Prior to the drunk driving accident that sent him to jail they were happy and thinking of starting a family. She got together with someone else while he was on the inside (Forest Whitaker) and as the former flames make polite conversation (on a camera-friendly footbridge in the center of an economically desolate downtown) she confesses that she is pregnant. Bale is devastated, but he is also happy for her. His reaction, a flood of conflicting, untidy and uncontainable emotion show, as they say in the biz, “good choices.” Bale's performance in the rest of the movie is ho-hum, but that's because the character and the movie itself is ultimately boring. But these three seconds are electric, and almost worth the price of admission.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn't want to deal too much with the theme that drives these moments. Director/co-writer is content to just leave them there at the edges because he (unwisely) thinks he's got a great crime yarn to spin. This is, alas, not the case. The bulk of “Out of the Furnace” is a dull, seen-it-a-million-times story of small time hoods getting in too deep with maniac baddies. The straight and narrow guy (in this case, Bale) is forced by The Gritty Movie Code to enact vengeance, and that means running around abandoned industrial landscapes with a shotgun. Snooze.
“Out of the Furnace” is an odd duck because there's little that stands out as a particularly offensive element. In fact, there are several small niceties that pop up. Willem Dafoe may be the most caring gangster in cinema. I mean, he still demands of you the money you owe him, but worries a little if you decide to pay back with winnings from dangerous bare-knuckle fights. On the other hand, this may be the first movie in which a major plot point is derived from an errant butt-dial.
Nevertheless, when the movie concludes (and Pearl Jam's anthemic “Release” brays over the credits) the overwhelming feeling is one of waste. Good performers, picturesque setting, characters with potential – but, unfortunately, no real story to tell.
SCORE: 5.0 / 10