Writer/director Scott Cooper struck gold with his 2009 directorial debut Crazy Heart, mostly thanks to the Oscar-winning performance by star Jeff Bridges.
It’s no surprise, then, that stars lined up for his follow-up, Out of the Furnace; Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepard all stepped forward.
It’s too bad that what Cooper delivered is a rambling, pointless mess. Bale plays Russell Baze, a steelworker just trying to make the best out of life in downtrodden western Pennsylvania. His brother, Rodney (Affleck), is a soldier who’s done multiple tours in Afghanistan and can’t seem to stay out of trouble.
As if weren't enough to be relentlessly depressing, the film also has no discernable plot.
As Rodney continues to spiral downward, Russell, always the protector, can’t help but be pulled into his brother’s negative wake, including dealings with a local bookie (Dafoe), a back-country criminal (Harrelson) and the local police chief (Whitaker).
The movie’s title is a play on the phrase “out of the furnace, into the fire,” something that couldn’t be more apropos of this relentlessly depressing film. Just about everything that can go wrong for these two brothers does, although many times it’s of their own doing.
But what Cooper never makes clear is exactly what he’s trying to say by making such a film. Is he trying to comment on how the poor economy affects people living in small towns like this? Pointing out that returning veterans often can’t find their footing after the horrors of war? Something else? Whatever it is, Cooper mangles it by never finding a focus.
There’s no discernible plot; it has instead a repetitive refrain, with Russell constantly cleaning up Rodney’s messes. A detour for Russell a third of the way through makes no sense, dramatically or otherwise, except to show how even Rodney’s absence can cause things to go bad for Russell.
The final 30 minutes of the film turn into a revenge story of sorts, but it never resonates because Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby meander their way toward the supposedly tense conclusion. The movie hangs on Russell’s never-ceasing love for his brother, but Cooper dulls that emotion by giving Russell too many distractions.
Despite the lackluster story, the talent of the actors involved shines through. Bale is intimidating yet relatable, Affleck is in a believable state of chaos and Harrelson is as creepy as he's ever been. They and the rest of the cast make the film watchable, even when Cooper can’t seem to decide what to do next.
Crazy Heart was a force to be reckoned with at Oscars time, but Out of the Furnace is not likely to replicate that success. It’s a film that seems to have a lot to say but can never find the right manner in which to say it.