Christian Bale in Out of the Furnace: a rotten enterprise

The film aspires to mimic the qualities that make a movie stand out during the pre-Oscars rush - but despite a highly qualified cast and credible producers, it falls well short of the mark.

Out of the Furnace (15)
dir: Scott Cooper

You could ask the world’s most highly skilled carpenters to build you a bookcase but the result would be disastrous if all they had to work with was rotten wood. The presence of Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard and Forest Whitaker is a sound reason to see Out of the Furnace. The prestige extends to the production credits – where you’ll find Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio – but the film is one hell of a bad bookcase.

Russell (Bale) is a good man with honourable facial hair and just enough tattoos to convince us he’s noble, yet not so many that it makes us think “psychopath”. He works at a steel mill in Pittsburgh, just as his father did, and is helping to pay off the gambling debts of his younger brother, Rodney (Affleck), who is back and forth on tours of duty in Iraq. Russell likes to go hunting with his uncle, Gerald (Shepard), while Rodney drifts helplessly into the world of bare-knuckle boxing under the influence of his creditor, John (Dafoe). John is in turn being menaced and extorted by Harlan – played by Harrelson, in another of those performances that prove the sweetness of his work in Cheers will cling to him no matter how unsavoury he is.

We first meet Harlan at a drive-in cinema, where he attempts to choke his female com­panion by forcing a frankfurter down her throat. What possible bearing could an assault by sausage have on the film’s theme of masculinity in crisis?

You would think well of any director who resisted the temptation to cut between Russell hunting a stag through the woods and Rodney having his face reconfigured as blancmange in a fight but Scott Cooper (who has sentimentalised blue-collar lives before in Crazy Heart) is not that person. Opportunities for overwrought symbolism beckon from the treacherous rocks of cliché. Contrary to appearances, the film – with its closing steel mill, hunting, prison yards and plaid shirts – is not adapted from lyrics found in Bruce Springsteen’s waste-paper basket but is written by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby. Or, rather, overwritten.

Casting the scrawny, wounded-looking Affleck as Rodney is the sort of decision that removes the need for pages of dialogue explaining his pain. But the film includes them anyway. Oh, the things he has seen! “I carried my best friend’s legs under this arm and the rest of him under this arm . . . I saw a pile of feet in the middle of the street.” Affleck gives the speech some welly, rounding it off with a scream. Still, you can’t help thinking: a whole pile of feet? In the monotonous, macho gloom of the movie, the line becomes amusing. The more portentous the film gets, with its camerawork divided between the artfully wobbly (for slanging matches or punch-ups) and the solemn (for appreciating the significance of the moment), the funnier it becomes. It falls so adorably short of its ambition to be The Deer Hunter that you almost want to cuddle it.

One aspect, however, is handled with subtlety. When Russell is involved in a car crash and flags down another driver for help, Cooper cuts without fanfare to the life-changing consequences of the accident. In all other respects, he never uses an elliptical edit if the option of three ponderous scenes and a monologue is available.

When material strives this hard for tough­ness and heart and humanity – and all the other qualities that coincidentally become important to Hollywood during the Oscar-eligibility period – it can seem inauthentic. Tiny, ersatz details scream for our attention: the tatty, rolled-up US flag on the porch, the penny lollipop sucked on by Harlan, the toy freight trains in Russell’s house, the bridge overlooking the desolate train tracks on which Russell receives important news from his ex-girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana).

I neglected to mention until now that the film includes a speaking part for a woman – then again, Cooper has less interest in female characters than he does in shots of men being hit in the face with gun butts. It’s typical of this unsubtle film that Lena turns out to be a primary school teacher, a joyful caregiver among all these scowling and inarticulate males. She glows beneficently while the men – and the audience – suffer.

Big guns: Christian Bale as Russell.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The radicalism of fools

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