Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace opens at a drive-in playing Ryuhei Kitamura’s (unfairly) much-maligned horror flick, The Midnight Meat Train (2008). Thanks to this and David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook (2012), I think there are more people who have seen Kitamura’s schlocky, bloody horror movie referenced than those who have seen the actual movie. Its inclusion in Cooper’s film is only interesting because, for a moment at least, I’d hoped that by setting a mood with such a movie, maybe Out of the Furnace wasn’t going to be the hard-and-heavy drama the previews had promised.
But then the scene ended, and it was all (slowly) downhill from there. Cooper’s movie turned into the self-serious, flimsy meditation on violence and poverty I’d feared it would be. What’s disappointing is that Out of the Furnace shares more with Midnight Meat Train than it and its hoary dramatics want to admit. At its base, the film is a mix of noirish detective pulp, revenge flick and neo-Western influences. But this is only in flashes, since instead of making trashy entertainment, Cooper wants to examine the American condition. There are a few problems with this — namely that the director’s earnestness is built on an exploitative, mawkish view of American poverty. In other words, there’s a certain sense that all these rich Hollywood types don’t really know what they’re talking about. Out of the Furnace — much like Cooper’s Crazy Heart (2009) and its depiction of alcoholism — is a cliched, trifling and hackneyed illustration of its subject. I suppose you could make the argument that everyone involved is well-intentioned, but that just raises the question — what are the films’ aims? By the time the empty climax hits and the end credits start rolling, damned if I knew what Cooper’s point was.
As far as the plot goes, Out of the Furnace is predicated on 105 minutes of hard luck piled upon one man. Christian Bale plays Russell, a steelworker of small means (he has a neck tattoo, so you know he’s poor — 2013’s new cinematic cliche). After a night of drinking, he gets in a car wreck that presumably kills a child and promptly gets him thrown into prison. Once he’s out, his world has changed. His father (Bingo O’Malley) has died, his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) has left him for the town’s head cop (a surprisingly hokey Forest Whitaker), and his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) — returned from his fourth tour in Iraq — is an emotional mess. Plus, the steel mill is about to close, meaning Russell is one dead dog away from a country song. Rodney is the last thing Russell has in the world. Unfortunately, Rodney gets mixed up in an underground boxing ring run by a nasty backwoods meth dealer, Harlan (Woody Harrelson), who murders Rodney and buries him in the woods. Angry and despondent, Russell and his uncle (Sam Shepard) set out for revenge.
Like I said, this is a fine foundation for a trashy action film, but this is not Cooper’s intent. He’s much more concerned with — as Preston Sturges put it in Sullivan’s Travels (1941) — modern conditions, stark realism and problems that confront the common man — complete with drugs, death and languorous shots of smokestacks. It’s not a fun topic, nor an original one. To quote Sturges directly, “The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.” Cooper has nothing to add to the conversation, instead allowing his film to wallow — much like Harlan, and eventually Russell — in dirty, ugly violence. The director’s approach is high-minded and — as far as behind the camera goes — technically proficient, but Cooper’s forgotten to add either a moral compass or an emotional center, making this dour film watchable, but ultimately disposable, shallow and far short of its lofty intent. Rated R for strong violence, language and drug content.
Playing at Regal Biltmore, United Artists Beaucatcher.