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

Steve Garry
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The footie is back. Three weeks in and what have we learned so far?

Barcleys, boots and big names... the Prem is back.

Another season, another reason for making whoopee cushions and giving them to Spurs fans to cheer them up during the long winter afternoons ahead. What have we learned so far?

Big names are vital. Just ask the manager of the Man United shop. The arrival of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger has done wonders for the sale of repro tops and they’ve run out of letters. Benedict Cumberbatch, please join Carlisle United. They’re desperate for some extra income.

Beards are still in. The whole Prem is bristling with them, the skinniest, weediest player convinced he’s Andrea Pirlo. Even my young friend and neighbour Ed Miliband has grown a beard, according to his holiday snaps. Sign him.

Boots Not always had my best specs on, but here and abroad I detect a new form of bootee creeping in – slightly higher on the ankle, not heavy-plated as in the old days but very light, probably made from the bums of newborn babies.

Barclays Still driving me mad. Now it’s screaming from the perimeter boards that it’s “Championing the true Spirit of the Game”. What the hell does that mean? Thank God this is its last season as proud sponsor of the Prem.

Pitches Some groundsmen have clearly been on the weeds. How else can you explain the Stoke pitch suddenly having concentric circles, while Southampton and Portsmouth have acquired tartan stripes? Go easy on the mowers, chaps. Footballers find it hard enough to pass in straight lines.

Strips Have you seen the Everton third kit top? Like a cheap market-stall T-shirt, but the colour, my dears, the colour is gorgeous – it’s Thames green. Yes, the very same we painted our front door back in the Seventies. The whole street copied, then le toot middle classes everywhere.

Scott Spedding Which international team do you think he plays for? I switched on the telly to find it was rugby, heard his name and thought, goodo, must be Scotland, come on, Scotland. Turned out to be the England-France game. Hmm, must be a member of that famous Cumbrian family, the Speddings from Mirehouse, where Tennyson imagined King Arthur’s Excalibur coming out the lake. Blow me, Scott Spedding turns out to be a Frenchman. Though he only acquired French citizenship last year, having been born and bred in South Africa. What’s in a name, eh?

Footballers are just so last season. Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane can’t score. The really good ones won’t come here – all we get is the crocks, the elderly, the bench-warmers, yet still we look to them to be our saviour. Oh my God, let’s hope we sign Falcao, he’s a genius, will make all the difference, so prayed all the Man United fans. Hold on: Chelsea fans. I’ve forgotten now where he went. They seek him here, they seek him there, is he alive or on the stairs, who feckin’ cares?

John Stones of Everton – brilliant season so far, now he is a genius, the solution to all of Chelsea’s problems, the heir to John Terry, captain of England for decades. Once he gets out of short trousers and learns to tie his own laces . . .

Managers are the real interest. So refreshing to have three young British managers in the Prem – Alex Neil at Norwich (34), Eddie Howe at Bournemouth (37) and that old hand at Swansea, Garry Monk, (36). Young Master Howe looks like a ball boy. Or a tea boy.

Mourinho is, of course, the main attraction. He has given us the best start to any of his seasons on this planet. Can you ever take your eyes off him? That handsome hooded look, that sarcastic sneer, the imperious hand in the air – and in his hair – all those languages, he’s so clearly brilliant, and yet, like many clever people, often lacking in common sense. How could he come down so heavily on Eva Carneiro, his Chelsea doctor? Just because you’re losing? Yes, José has been the best fun so far – plus Chelsea’s poor start. God, please don’t let him fall out with Abramovich. José, we need you.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism