Judge Jason Panella keeps forgetting to take the cookies out of the furnace.
Sometimes your battles chose you.
Revenge is a dish miserably served.
Facts of the Case
Russell Baze (Christian Bale, American Hustle) is a normal guy. His days are spent working his demanding steel mill job in the suburbs of Pittsburgh. Sometimes he spends his evenings taking care of his dying father, or hanging out with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek). Sometimes he grabs a beer with his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck, Gone Baby Gone), an Iraq War veteran. But once Rodney gets caught up in some dirty deals with scumbag sociopath Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, Zombieland), life becomes mighty unpleasant for the brothers.
They don't really make movies like Out of the Furnace these days. Or, at least they don't make that many of them. Writer-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) seems to draw a lot of inspiration from Michael Cimino's classic The Deer Hunter, with a few splashes of nihilistically hued '70s crime films. So Out of the Furnace is a gumbo of deliberate pacing, miserable characters, and brutal consequences. Hope you weren't expecting something light!
Out of the Furnace is a slow-boiling revenge thriller, but its greatest strengths come from how it uses its Rust Belt setting to reflect the characters' malaise. Russell's steel-working job helps him make ends meet, but it's not the kind of life he wants—his father is dying from the lifetime he spent in the mill, and Russell is keen to start a family with Lena. But there aren't any other options—their small town is crumbling around them, with condemned homes brushing up against boarded-up businesses. The lack of hope has all but crushed Rodney, who throws his limited savings away at horse races and illegal bare-knuckle fights. So the characters make bad decision after bad decision, and the frankness of how the story plays out is kind of refreshing in its realism. What does justice look if it's not fair? What happens if the choices we make don't act as a release, instead only making things worse? Good questions, and that Cooper deals with them with a cool head is impressive. But that doesn't make it an easy watch; the movie leaves you with a lot to think about, but almost two hours of near-continuous misery is tough to deal with. Especially when it's delivered in a thriller package—this is morality play (and a good one!) with only a feigned stab at catharsis or excitement.
One of the biggest draws to Out of the Furnace is the dynamite cast. Bale and Affleck are fantastic, as usual, and Harrelson is positively terrifying. There's also a killer supporting cast: Saldana, Forrest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland), Willem Dafoe (Platoon), Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff). While Cooper uses Bale especially well, the supporting cast are disappointingly underused. Whitaker, Saldana, and Shepard are in what amounts to lengthy cameos. You could argue that this is the story of the Baze brothers, I guess, but it would've been great to have Saldana and Whitaker serve as more than talking plot points.
It's worth mentioning that Cooper intentionally set and filmed the film in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a small borough in the Pittsburgh metro sprawl. Braddock, unlike the area in general, is still suffering greatly from the collapse of the steel industry. Pittsburgh as a whole might have bounced back, but Braddock is still suffering. I've lived near Pittsburgh my entire life, and several of the scenes were literally filmed a few miles from my home—so as a native, I think Cooper nails the atmosphere, for the most part. (And Bale almost nails a Pittsburgh accent, which is no easy feat.) That said, Cooper curiously fails to nail down the movie's actual location. We've never given an idea that Braddock is just outside of large American city (as in, a few miles away), and the movie can't seem to decide where in Pennsylvania the movie is taking place. For instance, more than one scene seems to indicate that New Jersey, where DeGroat's gang lives, is a short drive away. It's not. This isn't a big deal, but the geographic elasticity on display—especially after the painstaking efforts to make Braddock accurate—is mildly frustrating.
Fox's Out of the Furnace (Blu-ray) features an excellent 2.40:1/1080p HD transfer. This is sharp-looking film, and Cooper captures the beauty of western Pennsylvania (stark or not) wonderfully. The film is frequently dark, due to Cooper shooting with natural lighting, and the transfer handles it well. Detail is consistently sharp, too, especially with close-ups. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track is also great—the film is often quiet, and the track picks up some of the rural background sounds perfectly. Dialogue is balanced nicely, and the fistfights and gunshots punctuate with an excellent impact.
In addition to an Ultraviolet HD digital copy of the film, there's also a decent selection of extras that are quality over quantity: "Inspiration" (3:30), where the cast discusses what films got them into the business; "Scott Cooper" (6:39), with the director sounding off about the film and its inspiration; "Crafting the Fight Scenes" (5:15); "The Music of Out of the Furnace" (9:07), which focuses on the rustic score by Dickon Hinchliffe (Winter's Bone), as well as some of the other uses of music in the film; plus a trailer for the film.
Out of the Furnace is an exceptionally made genre picture, one I admired more than I enjoyed. There's a lot going on under the surface. The movie's careful pace and unflinchingly bleak approach to its story might make this a tough sell for some movie-goers, though. Still, if you like your thrillers with a shovelful of existential angst, dive right in.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2014 Jason Panella; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.