MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Out of the Furnace’

‘Out of the Furnace’ is broken beyond repair: 1½ stars

Updated: 2013-12-06T17:31:25Z

By JON NICCUM

Special to The Star

“Out of the Furnace” begins with the sounds of crickets long before an image pops onscreen. They belong at the end of the film. Like the silence that follows a bad joke. Or, in this case, the hush that comes from watching a relentlessly dismal revenge drama that has no point.

Few movies this year can boast a cast this loaded and a director this promising (Scott Cooper of the Oscar-winning “Crazy Heart”) that results in something so ineffectual.

It starts out promisingly enough. “Out of the Furnace” establishes the slice-of-life routines of factory workers, loan sharks and dealers within a small Rust Belt community. Christian Bale portrays Russell Baze, whose neck tattoos and scuzzy grooming can’t disguise the fact he’s an industrious family man.

His younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), is another matter. The hotheaded Iraq War vet struggles adjusting to civilian life … and staying ahead of his gambling debts, which Russell secretly pays off.

When Russell gets incapacitated for a long stretch, Rodney finds shadier ways to settle what he owes. This includes fighting in bare-knuckle bouts organized by Harlan (Woody Harrelson), a rabid kingpin from backwoods New Jersey that has more in common with “Deliverance” than “Jersey Shore.”

After Rodney disappears and the police (led by Forest Whitaker) offer little help, big brother comes to the rescue.

“You got a problem with me?” Russell confronts the psycho Harlan.

“I’ve got a problem with everybody,” he replies.

For a while, “Out of the Furnace” captures a gritty, washed-out gravitas similar to “The Deer Hunter.” Family. Illness. War. Wasted opportunity. Bale and Affleck underplay what could have been loud surface characters, revealing a bond that feels genuine. Affleck’s wiry vibe is especially apt here as a man who fancies himself too good for his hometown but not good enough for anywhere else.

Slowly, the movie’s Hollywood facade reveals itself, despite the careful attention given the wood-paneled interiors and littered locations (shot in Pennsylvania and West Virginia). A distracting number of famous faces keep entering the scene: Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard, Zoe Saldana — like a provincial version of “The Love Boat.”

The film still plays like a meandering art-house piece until the seen-it-a-million-times finale, which offers up the kind of primal justice that those yahoos in the audience who haven’t already fallen asleep will likely appreciate. Merciless hood Harlan abandons all his logic and strategy to knowingly walk into what could only be a lethal ambush or a law enforcement sting. Yet, there he goes.

Meanwhile, Russell orchestrates his retribution with all the delicacy of a fifth-grader playing paintball. It’s already silly that he intentionally lets his quarry flee the scene of a crime. But then his pursuit leads to one of those abandoned factories that exist solely in flicks starring Sylvester Stallone or Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Ultimately, do Russell’s actions make him a hero? A villain? A martyr? Who cares? All these tough-guy idiots deserve their fates.

WHAT WE LEARNED ABOUT CHRISTIAN BALE

The 39-year-old Brit took a break from shooting “Exodus” in Spain (he’s playing Moses) to talk about his two new movies. Five highlights from his interview with Variety:

1. Although he’s known as a great Method actor, Bale had no formal training other than “a class at the YMCA when I was 10 or 11 where we pretended to be a fried egg.”

2. He was exhausted after filming 2012’s “The Dark Knight Rises.” “I just didn’t think I could do anything after that for awhile,” Bale said. “It was a 125-day shoot over seven months and I needed a break.” But he agreed to do “Out of the Furnace” after learning it was written just for him. And his wife pushed him to do his next film, “American Hustle,” out Dec. 18.

3. He studied DVD interviews with Melvin Weinberg, the ’70s conman who inspired Bale’s character in “American Hustle.” “When I saw him, I thought, ‘Oh my word, this is not what I would have expected at all!’ Here’s the most brilliant con artist in the world, and who does he think he’s kidding with that comb-over? It looks like one ear throwing a lifeline to the other ear!”

4. Amy Adams, who played his adversary in “The Fighter” and his lover in “American Hustle,” says the one thing that would surprise people most about Bale: “He’s funny. Really, really funny.”

5. “I tend to stay in character between scenes … to be rather serious on set,” Bale says. Why so serious? “I’m one of the worst ‘corpses’ on a movie set, which means you can’t keep a straight face. You start to get the giggles and you can’t stop. I never want to step out of a scene and be objective, because as soon as I do, I find it hilarious.”

| Sharon Hoffmann, shoffmann@kcstar.com

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