Out of the Furnace punches its bare knuckles through a tepid inferno. North Braddock, Pennsylvania. A bleak town saturated in underdeveloped commercial opportunities. The local steel mill sparking life into the desolate streets. Political speeches plague television channels, during a time of economic depreciation. Civilians unknowingly performing their daily routines like machine code to a computer program. Without choice. Four-tour Iraq war veteran Rodney on the other hand, cannot work. A simple life to earn a living does not stimulate his mentally scarred mind. He owes money to a bar owner who incidentally runs illegal underground fights. He yearns for a lucrative brawl. A punch-up that would earn him enough to survive. An arrangement with sociopathic drug dealer Harlan DeGroat comes into fruition. The fight of all fights.
Rodney’s brother Russell, whom lives happily with his girlfriend and works at the steel mill, attempts to steer his younger brother down a more sustainable path. Too little, too late. Rodney winds up missing. Russell, ignoring the advice of police officials, takes matters into his own hands. And thus begins Cooper’s dramatic thriller of disorderly brotherly affection. A feature astoundingly mean-spirited with its violence, drug use and inconsequential characters, yet undoubtedly engaging.
It’s a narrative illustrating contrasts and similarities between two individuals who share a ferocious bond. Russell’s focussed and mindful solitude producing a disconcerting sense of edge, whereas Rodney’s bombastic frustration proving to be the catalyst for the concluding vengeance. With various scenes playing identically, with differing nuances for each brother, indicating their likeness. At its core, Out of the Furnace is a simple revenge tale in the midst of modern societal issues. That’s because it is.
However, what truly elevates the dramatic endeavours of Cooper and Ingelsby’s screenplay is the cast. A star-studded cast withholding bountiful talent. Bale, Affleck, Harrelson, Whitaker, Shepard, Saldana and Dafoe. Each performance offering a unique morality and interaction into the escalating scenario of Rodney’s disappearance. Bale and Affleck, in particular, showcasing a vast amount of range and solemnity. The problem with this extensive cast, is that several of them become secondary to the plot. One or two even sinking to tertiary levels of wasted opportunities. Saldana’s character is a reminder of the joyous life Russell once had, yet is rarely used at all. Her humanity is a vital dimension for the other characters to inhibit, however, is only used to further infuriate Russell when revealing her pregnancy with the also underused Whitaker, to which lacked chemistry.
The overwhelming testosterone-fuelled masculinity needed feminine relief, and unfortunately that wasn’t present. Despite a nearly two-hour runtime, the plot is considerably disjointed in the first act. Huge cuts occur between Russell intoxicatingly killing occupants in a car and his incarceration for vehicular manslaughter, and the revelation of his father succumbing to illness. It offers a window of hopelessness, unable to act upon the world outside, yet these pivotal moments of emotionality were removed entirely to make space for the bulk of the feature. A thriller is built upon characterised foundations. Remove that, and an unrequested neutral standpoint floods the emotional investment towards the scripted characters. Oh, and the plot convenience of the mobile phone “accidentally” calling a voice mail that the police would then use to investigate Rodney’s disappearance? Just no.
Cooper’s straightforward revenge thriller is an unsympathetic tale that never backs away from the burning embers its title suggests. However, much like its drive-in cinema showing of ‘The Midnight Meat Train’, the cast is unable to elevate the simplicity of its script, creating a functional if occasionally underwhelming feature in the process.