One Liner Review:
There is some good stuff here, including a very menacing villain, but the movie also has a whole bunch of flaws, including some poor pacing and a lousy climax.
This is a movie that had real potential. It’s a drama and not an action film, but the storyline has all the markings of the usual revenge flick. There’s the reluctant hero whose brother gets in over his head and the villain who does terrible things to that brother. This sparks our hero, Russell (Christian Bale) to take action. The setup is great, but the follow through is not very exciting. On top of that, there are quite a bit of errors here, from Russell going to prison and stalling the plot, to Zoe Saldana being with a man who looks more like her father. The movie pushes for style when it should have been pushing for story, keeping us on edge. Some of it works, but a whole lot of it doesn’t.
Out Of A Furnace is a movie that is baking in good qualities, but then also has one too many missteps to go along with them. It’s a real shame, because this movie could have been something great. First and foremost, the best thing about the movie is the villain. At the very start of the movie, in the opening scene, we meet Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson,) as he sits in a car at a drive-in movie being abusive to the woman he is with. When a man comes over to stop him, Harlan gets out and beats this man up. It’s a pretty scary beginning that grabs a hold of you right away.
It says something that this movie starts out with the villain. Plenty of other films do that too, but in this movie, the villain is the most interesting character in the entire film, and the movie is painfully aware of that. After we meet Harlan, it’s time to meet our main characters. There’s Russell (Christian Bale) and his younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck.) These are two great actors here, but neither one of them is delivering in the ways that we have seen them do before. Affleck was fantastic in Gone Baby Gone, some years back, but here, he is just slumming it, shouting at free will to show us how destroyed he is.
The beginning of the movie establishes Russell is the more responsible of the two brothers. When Rodeny gets a bad tip and bets heavy at the local OTB, it is Russell who has to bale him out. Russell goes and finds the man who lent Rodney the money (John, played by Willem Dafoe), and Russell starts paying off the debt for his brother. Then something very strange happens. Russell is driving one night and a car pulls out in front of him, and he slams into it. The result is a terrible car accident where the person Russell struck ends up dead. Russell now goes to jail.
The prison situation is not handled well. Everything that led up to it and to him having to go there was not presented clearly. For example, the movie did not tell us that Russell was drunk when he was driving. And it goes straight from the accident to prison. No trial. No talk about what happened with a lawyer. I get that maybe the movie is trying to save time, but seeing him suddenly in prison feels irrational and out of place. It is so unexpected and poorly explained, that for a while I actually considered this to maybe be a flashback of his former life. Turns out it is what’s happening in the storyline right now, and only after he is getting out do we finally hear that it was for drunk driving.
Another problem with the prison sequence is that it’s all over too fast. Russell goes on, Rodney comes to visit him and says he’s shipping out to fight in Iraq, and then suddenly Russell’s on his way out and Rodney is there to pick him up. This prison sequence is rushed and really not done well. To a certain extent, it also feels kind of pointless. The only thing that comes out of it is that Russell had a woman when he went in, (Lena, played by Zoe Saldana,) and now he comes out and she is with someone else and pregnant.
That leads to another problem. The man who she is with is old enough to be her father, and the movie isn’t very careful about explaining just who he is. This man is Wesley, the local police chief, as played by Forest Whitaker. For a long while, I actually thought he was Lena’s father. That’s how unclear the movie is. And even if it was clear about it, why have somebody twice her age be with her? I understand when they do it with actors in their forties, like Jim Carrey, but Whitaker can legitimately be playing an old man (with some help from the makeup department.) He just doesn’t fit the bill here.
Luckily the storyline picks up the slack. Following the prison mess, the plot actually does start to get going. Rodney is back from Iraq (why no scenes of him over there, while Russell was here doing time? That might have been a nice touch.) Russel goes back to working at the mill, like his father used to do. Rodney does not want that life. Instead, he pressures John into setting up a fight for him, taking him up north to the backwoods of New Jersey where illegal drugs and fighting run rampant.
The bare knuckle competition that Rodney gets himself into is pretty brutal. He is told to take a fall, and he does, although you can tell that he’s got a hard time with it and that it bruises his ego. This idea is right out of Snatch, but it’s okay, since this movie uses the plot for drama since that one used it for comedy. It’s also okay since Rodney actually does take the fall (unlike Brad Pitt in that film.) It’s on the drive back to Pennsylvania that Johna and Rodney are pulled over by DeGroat and his people and we learn they will not be getting home so easily. The sequence is scary as hell and reminds me of the opeing scene in Mississippi Burning where the car is pulled over by the police.
What happens to John and Rodney becomes the big event that launches the second half of the movie. Suddenly this is now a revenge film. That could be pretty cool if handled correctly. This one has signs that it knows what it’s doing, having Russell go out to those backwoods to spy on DeGroat and see what he’s up against. Only it just doesn’t execute well. When Russell makes a call to get DeGroat to come down, it’s pretty cool, but I would have preferred for Russell to fight his way out in that back country area, taking on a world that we know very little about.
Instead, DeGroat comes down and he doesn’t do it with very many men. It’s him and one other guy. What kind of a climax is this? Even in the Equalizer, the villain brought in a whole bunch of mercenaries to help him take out Denzel Washington at the end of the film. Now, I get that Out Of The Furnace is not an action movie, and so I agree that we didn’t need DeGroat showing up with a team of bad guys for the usual cliched final action scene. But what we should have gotten was Russell handling the problem while up there in the back woods, taking on whoever came after him. Even the final fight is not handled well, with us barely getting a fight or a threat from the villain. The movie had a decent enough story and a ton of fine actors on board, but there were just so many mistakes and errors in judgement. What a waste of an excellent and truly menacing villain.