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15 January 2014

Men of Steel

Despite its great cast list, I probably wouldn't have seen Scott Cooper's new film, Out of the Furnace, if I hadn't got a ticket to a free preview screening tonight, and I was a little disappointed. I enjoyed Cooper's last film, Crazy Heart, which saw Jeff Bridges as a talented but flawed ageing country singer. Out of the Furnace just never seemed to find its way, and even Woody Harrelson at his menacing best couldn't rescue it from mediocrity, and Christian Bale seemed to be ringing in his performance as our vengeance-seeking, family-man anti-hero.

The overly complicated synopsis on IMDb should have made me suspicious. Essentially, the film is a sort of 'Eastern' Western revenge drama, set in District 12 the Appalachian backwoods near the Pennsylvania–New Jersey border. Russell Baze (Bale) followed his father (Bingo O'Malley) and uncle (Sam Shepard) into the local steel mill, making a steady income and having fun with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana). He's always kept an eye out for his beloved younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), who wanted to go his own way, heading first for the army and Iraq and then trying to make back his gambling debts by participating in local fight clubs, under the stewardship of John Petty (Willem Dafoe).

Then a freak accident lands Russell in jail and by the time he gets out, his father is dead, Lena is with another man and Rodney is in way over his head after catching the attention of local ne'er-do-well Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson), whom we saw beating the shit out of a dude and a woman at a drive-in movie during the opening sequence. He has "fuck" and "you" tattooed on his fists and even the local police are scared of him. A charming chap, naturally. When his brother goes missing, Russell knows DeGroat is responsible and decides to take justice into his own hands, not trusting the cops to get the job done properly. Of course, first he has to find the bastard.

Part of the problem with the film is that the plot isn't anywhere near as well structured and well paced as the story I've just outlined. There's a lot of faffing around, establishing shots and scenes depicting the less than perfect life in the Rust Belt. This kind of slow-burning, background-heavy scene worked well in a languorous meditation like Crazy Heart but was less successful in the crime thriller that is Out of the Furnace. The final act, where things finally got moving, was pretty good, but by then I'd already started to lose interest in the characters. Bale, who is a great actor, felt miscast and as though he was just referring back to his role in The Fighter — he brooded a lot but never seemed to have that killer instinct. Affleck didn't get much chance to shine, and although Harrelson did his best and the other supporting cast were all fine, the script didn't really give them much to work with.

Out of the Furnace isn't terrible, by any means; it's just a fairly run-of-the-mill (tee hee) film that can't decide whether it wants to be a revenge noir or a family drama about the powerful bond between two brothers.

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