Spoiler alert: Out of the Furnace has a bad ending. On second thought, can you spoil a bad ending? After two hours of watching Christian Bale and Casey Affleck tear themselves apart emotionally, you deserve a better conclusion than what this film offers.
Actually, the trouble starts earlier than that, though you may not recognize it until the buildup leaves you holding an empty bag. Out of the Furnace tackles post-Iraq PTSD and post-economic crisis uncertainty in rural America. That would be plenty, especially given the cast; in addition to Bale and Affleck, director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) squeezes in Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker and Zoe Saldana. But those two topical issues are only launching pads for something much less interesting: the seedy underbelly of unsanctioned bare-knuckle boxing, our first piece of evidence that this is just a revenge flick dipped in a rich Deer Hunter sauce.
DeGroat (Harrelson) is a drug kingpin in the mountains of western New Jersey. Things are so rough there that the law just leaves them alone. He's had an interstate arrangement with John Petty (Dafoe) for years. Petty runs a dive bar in rural Pennsylvania, and though the extent of their dealings is not made clear, it probably includes drugs and definitely includes fixed fights. DeGroat is kind of the Don King of illegal fights you see in movies but never hear about anywhere else—held in a barn, rows of guys who look like they have no money waving a fistful toward the grisly action in the makeshift ring.
That's where Rodney Baze fits in. Struggling to make sense of his life after four tours of duty in Iraq, Rodney (Affleck) makes small-time money with fights like this. But he should have never fought for DeGroat. He's cruel, vicious and violent. Unfortunately, that's all he is. To be fair, DeGroat is the only character with no substantial depth but it's one of the bigger curiosities about this film because Harrelson is so capable of all sorts of weirdness that making him a one-note sociopath is a genuine letdown. Yes, Woody can play evil, but it's because of all the other stuff he can do simultaneously that he's so much fun to watch.
DeGroat has a long memory and a short temper, and when he agrees to book Rodney in a rigged fight to square Petty's debt, that's not exactly how it plays out. Once Rodney goes missing, older brother Russell (Bale) sets out to find him and to deliver the kind of justice to DeGroat the police won't.
Russell is no stranger to justice. He's days out of the state pen, but he seems at peace with it. Always driven and never one to complain, Russell goes back to work at the fading steel mill in town. During his incarceration, his girlfriend (Saldana) left him for the local police chief (Whitaker). The most interesting thing director Cooper does in this entire movie is take the love triangle slowly. It never raises its volume to a scream, and when the tension between Russell and the chief escalates because of Rodney's disappearance, it only makes Bale's character more despondent.
He's very good here, and in fact, so is everyone else. Harrelson, unfortunately, has to be pissed off and violent every second he's on screen, but he does it effectively. He's just exactly the same character the first and last time you see him. Affleck is sensational, though, and this could be his best work, top to bottom. But this is the time of year when you see a lot of this: movies that are so close yet so far away.
The culprit here is the script, co-written by Cooper and Brad Inglesby. Between them, they have exactly three produced screenplays to their credit, with Cooper adapting Crazy Heart and writing a ham-fisted horror movie called For Sale By Owner. Those were both released in 2009, so really, these guys are still just learning the craft. It kind of makes sense that they'd fall into the familiar trap of not knowing how to wrap up a promising movie.
And it kind of makes sense that they'd lean on familiar formulas, blueprints that decide early on where points A and B will land. So you've no doubt seen something like Out of the Furnace before. This one's dolled up a little differently, but it's entirely a standard vengeance picture with a really unsatisfying ending. And that's a shame because the cast is giving it their all.