REVIEW: ‘Out of the Furnace,’ AKA ‘Bad Springsteen Song: The Movie’

Out of the ‘Rejected Scripts’ Pile

Out of the Furnace is like a Springsteen wannabe that does a lot of singin’ about broken down veterans and boarded up factories, but never quite finds the chorus. It’s a “downtrodden” piece so slapdash that all the brooding feels unearned, full of “dramatic” monologues more likely to evoke dismissive wanking than tears. Authentic dour is one thing, but derivative dour always feels like the worst kind of fashionable phony baloney bullshit. Furnace’s wallowing in the well-traveled world of blue-collar rust belt masculinity is so sloppily rendered that it feels like tourism, like it was written by someone who heard about it in some Bon Jovar Mellencamp medley, working class poverty pimped out to sell flannel.

That’s not to say writers Scott Cooper and Brad Inglesby don’t know the world they’re writing, it’s just that their story doesn’t really track. So when all the pretty actors stand around looking sad, the writing isn’t good enough for us to understand why, and it kind of just feels like they’re doing it because it looks cinematic. Stand back, everyone! Christian’s about to stare wistfully into a sunset again!

Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, a tattooed Mcbeardy from Braddock, Pennsylvania. He works in the same steel mill that his dying daddy worked for. Working for his woman (Zoe Saldana), he brings home his pay. So tough, so tough. His brother Casey Affleck, an unemployed ex-Army grunt, likes to gamble with money he borrows from gangsters, though before long he gets stop-lossed back into another tour in Iraq. He’s bitter about it, but Christian, the good brother, says they’ve gotta hold on, to what they’ve got. They’ve got each other, and that’s a lot. It doesn’t make a difference if they make it or not.

Ooh yeah, they say life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.

One day, while driving home in his beat up pick-up truck (of course), after paying off one of his jackass, ne’er-do-well brother’s debts, Bale/Baze has an accident that lands him in prison (slightly spoilery explanation in footnote). Problem is, reasons he might go to jail for this accident aren’t well enough explained, so it sort of just feels like fashionable melancholy, something that happens just because. “And now this guy has to suffer for some reason. Maybe drunk driving? Who cares, f*ck you!”

A story that tracks makes you believe. One that doesn’t asks you to make excuses for it.

Once Christian Bale gets out of prison, he returns home to find his woman dunt run off and his kid brother mixed up in some kind of underground shirtless slap fighting league that operates out of spark factories. Casey Affleck comes home one day with his face all busted up after taking a wicked beating from a black guy. “What were you doing?” Bale asks him.

“I was out with friends,” Affleck says.

“Your friends play rough,” Bale says.

Then later, Bale finds Affleck’s bloody knuckle wraps in the trash and confronts him about his fighting. Because apparently, the coming-home-with-a-face-full-of-black-eyes thing wasn’t already enough of a tip off vis a vis fighting. Not exactly quick on the uptake, this guy.

Affleck eventually begs his ersatz manager played by Willem Dafoe to get him a fight over in hillbilly country, which is run by Woody Harrelson’s character. Who we know is a bad dude because the movie opened with him shoving a whole hot dog down his poor girlfriend’s throat for no reason at all. Oh, and also because he has “F*CK YOU” tattooed on his hands. And we know Casey getting mixed up with these hillbillies is probably a bad idea, because he has “DOOMED MARTYR” tattooed on his forehead. Also, he kept saying all his lines through a picture of Eric Roberts from Pope of Greenwich Village taped to a popsicle stick, which I thought was weird.

So then ol’ F.U. Harrelson makes Affleck promise to throw the fight, even though it’s a little unclear how anyone’s going to make money off some nobody throwing a fight that takes place on the dirt floor of a barn with 20 hillbillies standing around. Because Snatch, I guess. Later there’s a betrayal scene, where the motives make even less sense. Still, Harrelson manages to strike an enjoyably goofy, pulpy tone that the rest of the movie desperately needed. Cheesy fun would’ve been welcome, because it sure doesn’t work as a drama. A story about these hill people and their curious slap-fight based economy might’ve been interesting. Instead, we get a half-baked revenge story with a predictable, limp dicked ending.

Scott Cooper has become somewhat known as a director who makes his actors look good after Crazy Heart earned an Oscar nomination for Maggie Gyllenhaal and a win for Jeff Bridges back in 2009. Making the actors look good seems to be the sole purpose and focus of Out of the Furnace, with Drama with a capital D borrowed from classic dramas, almost as an afterthought (sample dialog: “What’s wrong with workin’ at the mill, huh? It was good enough for dad!”).

Some people will forgive a lot for “good acting,” as evidenced by the conversation I overheard on the way out of the theater, from a group of late 20-something couples. “It was, like, really powerful.” “Yeah, I mean, the acting was good.” Then more quietly, “…It was really drawn out.”

Me, I saw an average student film, with characters chasing each other, someone has a gun for some reason, and a faux-meaningful wank of an ending. You can tell it didn’t even bother updating the sources from which it steals, because the characters spend the whole movie going to drive-in movies, talking on landlines, and watching TV on old tube sets even though none of it takes place before 2007. “Hey, Barkeep, you seen my kid brother?”

What are you asking him for? Send him a text. Even homeless people have smartphones.

Honestly, the best thing about Out of the Furnace was the liberal use of a classic Pearl Jam song. AAAAAAAH SEEE THE BIRRRRRRDS, AND THE RAAAAAHEEEEYHAAAAAAAAAAIIN. Had me underbite singing all day.


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†We see Bale have one beer and one shot at a bar, and then, as he’s driving home, we see him slam his pick-up truck into a station wagon that was backed halfway out into a lane in which he had the right of way. There’s little to indicate that he’s drunk at this point and nothing to indicate he was at fault in the accident. And after it happens, he has to flag down a motorist, because no one in this goddamn movie has cell phones for some reason.