At the start of December, we have Out of the Furnace, which is a movie that is somewhat like 2010's Winter's Bone. Both films took place in a rural area. Winter's Bone was set in The Ozarks, while Out of the Furnace takes place in Braddock. However, despite the film's atmospheric looks and solid performances from most of its cast, there are plenty of mistakes made in the execution of its story. This isn't going to become one of the films to receive plenty of Oscar attention like this month's American Hustle, Saving Mr. Banks and The Wolf on Wall Street are likely to get.
The film takes place in the northeastern parts of the US. Everyone in town is either just get enough money to get by or they live in poverty. The story revolves around two brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck). Russell works at a steel mill, while Rodney is a soldier who served several tours of duty in Iraq. Traumatized by his experiences, Rodney has a difficult time trying to adjust to normal life. He struggles to find work and relies on gambling and bare-knuckle boxing in order get some money. But at the same time, he owes a lot of money to loan shark John Petty (Willem Dafoe).
But everything changes when Russell gets sent to prison after accidentally killing someone in a drunk driver accident. As he is in prison, his father passes away, his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) moves on, and Rodney is having more difficulties without Russell being there for him. While he is eventually released, troubles are just beginning. Rodney gets in too deep with boxing and tries to make big money by fighting Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). However, something goes wrong and Russell has to decide whether or not to act.
This film is an exploration of what it's like in rural areas, in which there is only a handful of rich people. It also gives us an exploration of the human condition. Russell tries to deal with everything that is happening to him after his incarceration and Rodney struggles to adjust to a normal life. The scenes between Russell and Rodney are done really well, especially a scene where Rodney has a mental breakdown.
However, there are times when the narrative seems bogged down. The first half of the film is like a drama film, but it turns into a revenge flick during the second half. It also takes a while for things to actually get started, as the film moves at a rather slow pace. And a part of the ending of the film, while the last shot is quite morbid, didn't make sense.
The three lead actors are what help keep this film afloat. Christian Bale, in his first post-Batman role, gives a solid performance as Russell. He gives us a relatable character who has to struggle with his life and tries to get by with what he has. And later in the film, when he is faced with a moral dilemma, he also realizes the consequences it may have on his life. Casey Affleck plays Rodney with a sense of conviction and he shares good chemistry with Bale. However, he doesn't look like someone who would realistically win boxing matches. But at least he acts the part.
Then there's Woody Harrelson. In previous works, he was known for playing a man who acts like a badass and makes does plenty of funny lines. But he does none of that in Out of the Furnace. Here, his character is more like that of a sociopath. His opening scene at the beginning of the film was unsettling, though that villainous edge was a little underused. But this goes to show that Woody Harrelson can make a good villain.
But the other characters and storylines is this film's weakness. Like with Ender's Game, while the actors don't do bad jobs, they're characters are underdeveloped. Zoe Saldana plays Russell's girlfriend, who moves onto police officer Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). Her character had very little relevance in the story and all Wesley does is investigate the crime that takes place and try to keep Russell from taking drastic measures. Willem Dafoe as the loan shark is mostly just there to further Rodney's character arc.
Out of the Furnace is serviceable, but it doesn't live up to its full potential. There's certainly a great movie buried here, but some of the scripting and change of tone halfway through keeps it from getting there. However, the performances from Bale, Affleck and Harrelson might make this worthwhile. But anyone waiting for the next Best Picture nominated film will have to wait for American Hustle.