For what it's worth, Christian Bale delivers the most inspired performance in writer/director Scott Cooper's nondescript middle American drama, OUT OF THE FURNACE (while Casey Affleck delivers the most curtly heartbreaking). But that still doesn't make up for the film, and doesn't even compare to either actor's past body of work. Actually, watching these pair of performances is like watching a two-hour audition for another, better movie (please keep me posted on that one).
With a cast that includes Bale, Affleck, Willem Dafoe, Woody Harrelson and Forest Whitaker, one should expect--and be rewarded with--fireworks. But instead we receive an aimless, generic crime drama that cuts itself off at the knees early on and scrambles for relevancy thereafter. What makes the film mildly intriguing in its first act is the relationship between the two main characters--Affleck's portrayal of an imprudent Iraq veteran suffering from PTSD and Bale's depiction of his equally indiscriminate yet more grounded brother make it worth watching. But that quickly fades as the first act breaks apart to reveal a completely watered down plot.
The film follows a very familiar premise. Rodney (Affleck) is recently back from Iraq and is emotionally and mentally scarred by his experiences there. He struggles to readjust to civilian life but decides that normalcy is not an option for him. So he spends most his time as an aimless delinquent--gambling, street fighting for money and doing the bare minimum to survive. Meanwhile, his brother Russell (Bale) is an honest mill worker, content with his humble life and relationship with Lena (Zoe Saldana). But, despite foreshadowing the alternative, Russell is the one who ends up doing a stint in jail. This is a plot move that manages to take you completely by surprise but does absolutely nothing for the film or the character but create an unnecessary detour that veers from the point of the film (which is nearly nonexistent anyway).
From there, things spiral downward for Rodney, whose dirty dealings get him and his reluctant bookie, John Petty (Dafoe), in a whole heap of trouble with crime mogul caricature extraordinaire Harlan DeGroat (played by Harrelson). Even his name sounds like a cartoon character. Russell, who we're supposed to believe has a harder edge now after his prison stay (where he acquires extra tattoos), goes into the wild on his own to make the situation right. This is where Whitaker as the useless sheriff Wesley--and Lena's new love interest--steps in. Again, this entire cast is too awesome for this conventionalism. Some of the frivolity both Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby give the characters is just bizarre at times. It does the actors and characters a disservice.
Getting back to expendable plotlines, despite Saldana's earnest portrayal the only purpose Lena serves is to add more nuance to Russell's character. But that is counterproductive since we already see Russell's vulnerability in his relationship with his brother. There really is no need to add a broken romantic angle. This is just another way the movie struggles to be about something without being about anything at all.
Even with Bale and Affleck's committed performances (though there is too much reacting and not enough acting there), the film is derivative and unfortunately becomes a parody in and of itself. It actually would have been better off if it didn't veer off its own course early on, making is messy and derivative. Bale makes you root for his character enough to encourage you to watch until the end as he descends down a revenge spiral, keeping the otherwise flailing film from coming completely apart at the seams. While it is nice to see a more tender portrayal from Bale (unusual for him), though concealed behind a rough exterior, it isn't enough to uplift the film. Affleck, in his usual mumbly, whistling voice that's become his signature, isn't in the film long enough to grow attached to him and for him to really dive into what's really going on in Rodney's mind. That is a major ball drop for both the film and the characterization. But Affleck does make the most of the short amount of time he is onscreen.
There are several themes and characters introduced in OUT OF THE FURNACE that aren't truly explored, therefore we don't get to feel anything toward them, despite the way some of them fade to black. But what the film suffers from the most is its lack of intent. It spends much of the time flailing about and lands with a very soft, very expected, thud. Very disappointing.
Rating: C- (** out of *****)
OUT OF THE FURNACE is in theaters Friday.