Sometimes you look at these small films that fly under the radar with reasonable reviews and find yourself a real gem. They have powerful narratives and ample actors and they carry with them a pedigree that seems ripe for the taking, and the under the radar aspect only heightens the glisten when it really does pull something special off. I had those high hopes for this film going in. I love the ensemble, or at least generally respect them, and the trailer had me really excited. The good notices yet no awards traction bolstered my anticipation because it felt like one of those small movies that had a lot to offer yet was unfairly disregarded or overlooked.
And ever since 2007 I’ve been waiting for Casey Affleck to just become a really big deal.
I just want to address something that has felt like a really big issue with 2013 films in particular. Maybe I’m just being picky or overly sensitive to something, but for me this year has had its fair share of films with issues regarding the passage of time. I found this particularly distracting in ’12 Years a Slave’ and this film had the same issues. Couple that with a real pacing problem and ‘Out of the Furnace’ nearly burns off all its fuel not even halfway in. The story itself is compelling, sort of, but overall the film feels extremely bogged down by a real storytelling problem. The first half of the film seems to be centered on building up to a specific crux that we all knew was coming from the film’s advertising (brother goes missing, other brother gets mad) but in the process it just wastes so much character development in this swift passage of time.
I need to take a breath and elaborate.
The film opens with working man Russell plugging along at life with a hard job, a sick father, a wayward brother and a beautiful girlfriend who seems to make everything manageable. His brother, Rodney, has a gambling problem and borrows too much, but Russell’s standup reputation saves his brother from too much consequence. Then Russell gets drunk and makes a reckless decision that costs him years in prison. In those years (that pass by in a few minutes) his brother goes to war, his father dies and his girlfriend leaves him for a cop. Then Russell is a free man trying to pick up pieces of a faltered life. His ex-girlfriend is now pregnant and his brother, back from the way with too many memories, is street fighting to pay off gambling debts.
Then stuff happens and Russell finds himself in search of his brother and a backwoods (literal) gangster named Harlan DeGroat.
My issue is this; the film was so concerned with getting to this final half (the search for Rodney) that the entire first half, which could have been so ripe with actual character development, feels rushed and underwritten. It all feels like a cluttered and lazy way to throw a bunch of characters and situations at us without ever really developing anything, to the point where it all feels unnecessary. Some of the actors are horribly underused, especially Zoe Saldana, and the tonal shift to revenge thriller in the film’s second half seems to make the first half feel like a different movie.
The first half is also the far more interesting movie, despite being poorly filmed.
But beyond the pacing issues, the storytelling problems and the tonal uncertainty, the film offers us a really respectable cast that anchors the film and does their best to reel us in. Affleck is easily the standout, full of a ferocity that makes every aspect of this character so compelling. I honestly wish the entire film had been about his character, ending right in the middle where he goes ‘missing’, because he was all I thought about the whole time. It isn’t that Bale is bad here, because he’s actually very good, but Russell is easily the least interesting character in the film. Harrelson is ruthless and chews the scenery brilliantly, and the softer shades of Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker’s performances really help make this ensemble sing.
I just really, really wish this had been a better film.
It’s beautiful to look at (the lighting captures so much), but Scott Cooper’s script is so ridiculously underdeveloped and misguided that it takes the wind out of every sail. The film just deflates on impact, and by the time it’s over it’s completely forgotten.
I guess I give this a C-. I mean, it isn't awful, but it really doesn't reach the bar it set for itself (or I set for it in my head) and it just completely lost me by trying to be something it really shouldn't have bothered being. It just squandered so much!