If you're like me, then you live day to day thinking to yourself, "There just aren't enough truly grim movies in the world." Well, you're prayers have been answered thanks to OUT OF THE FURNACE, a new film from director and co-writer (with Brad Ingelsby) Scott Cooper, the former actor now director who directed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar in CRAZY HEART a few years back. Grim isn't necessarily meant to be a bad word under the right circumstances, but this film is so relentlessly gloomy, dark (as in dimly lit) and full-tilt bitter that it's tough not to feel smothered by its misery. A handful of substantially strong performances save the film from sinking entirely into a dour tar pit, but in so many scenes it feels like Cooper simply lost control of his actors, turning several exchanges between actors into several rounds of thespian boxing.
I loved the opening of the film more than just about anything else in the movie, and it features my favorite actor with a Southern twang (who isn't Matthew McConaughey), Woody Harrelson, playing Harlan DeGroat, who has a scene at a drive-in movie that establishes him as the film's resident pitbull. And then we don't see him again for a while, but we don't forget he's coming back, and we're always nervous about how exactly that's going to happen.
Set in a steel town around Pittsburgh, OUT OF THE FURNACE concerns factory worker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) and his trouble-maker brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), on leave from the military when we first meet him. We get a sense that Rodney's time in the armed services (he's just returned from Iraq) was an alternative to jail. Rodney seems like the more easy going of the two, until he isn't. To make a little money while on leave and perhaps to vent a little of his war-time rage, Rodney allows a local bar owner (Willem Dafoe) to book him a bare-knuckle boxing match, which he is meant to throw. But after taking a couple of solid hits to the face, the anger takes over and he pummels his opponent, losing his handlers some serious cash. Without missing a beat, Russell meets with Dafoe and agrees to pay off the debt, clearly establishing him as the brother that takes care of the family messes.
Almost as soon as he does this for this brother, something happens that lands Russell in jail for however many years. In the interim, he has lost his girlfriend (Zöe Saldana) to the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker), and Rodney has only gotten into more trouble, including getting Dafoe to arrange for a major fight with (Ta-da!) Harrelson's DeGroat in New Jersey, despite Dafoe begging him not to do it because he knows it will end badly. And not long after the fight, Rodney goes missing, sending Russell on a mission to set things straight once again.
It's funny how Cooper manages to make things seem low key even when they clearly aren't. There's a beautiful, post-breakup conversation between Bale and Saldana that is quiet but no less emotionally brutal for being so. The power of that sequence is not conveyed through raised voices; it's done on the faces and whispered words of the actors saying goodbye. It's a moment of closure that paves the way for several other scenes deeper into the film.
From a brief casual, tense exchange between Bale and Harrelson early in the movie, all roads lead to a showdown between the two men, which happens so fast in an unsatisfying manner that you'll probably wonder, "Is that it?" I get Cooper's impulse to maintain a tone, but if a dialed-back atmosphere is the norm in OUT OF THE FURNACE, you have to give a little something more when a moment is clearly meant to pop a little beyond the status quo. Seriously, this film is nearly drowning in bleakness. There's a dying father (who naturally dies while Russell is in prison, increasing his flinty demeanor), and a ragged uncle (Sam Shepard) who takes Russell deer hunting, which naturally does nothing to cheer anybody up.
OUT OF THE FURNACE's best features include Harrelson at his most cold and menacing, and you can't take your eyes off of him, because you know if you do, he'll probably stab you. And Bale holds his own, but even with his dead-on western-Pennsylvania accent, he seem out of his element. He's at his best in the hands of a strong director, and Cooper can't handle the firepower just yet. If you like steely blue and arctic gray, the look of this film should be right up your alley. The film's only bursts of color happen when there's the occasional splash of blood or molten steel being poured. That should tell you something. It's a tough call because I wouldn't miss performances like these from Bale and Harrelson under any circumstances, but the film is largely an obvious, ham-handed mess meant to feel like an exercise in subtlety; on that front, it's an absolute failure, and for that reason I can't quite bring myself to recommend it.