**This Review contains spoilers**
Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a simple hard working man, who makes a living at the local steel mill. Living in a small Pennsylvania town, Russell enjoys life with his girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), but Russell’s quiet little world isn’t free of problems.
Russell’s father is slowly dying of cancer, and Russell’s younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck) is stuck in debt with a local tavern owner named John Petty (Willem Dafoe). As a returning US Army soldier, Rodney struggles to adjust to civilian life. Rodney is jobless, and he refuses to break his back in the steel mill for some paychecks, so Rodney fights for money in Petty’s underground boxing club.
An anxious and frustrated Petty is tired of Rodney’s unwillingness to take dives in fixed fights, but Rodney is hungry for more. Unable to fight his urges for more money and tougher competition, Rodney pushes Petty to set up a series of fights with another underground club in New Jersey. Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) is the leader of New Jersey’s most infamous fight club, and Harlan won’t take no for an answer, when Petty and Rodney dig themselves into a deep hole of debt.
Russell returns home after a prison sentence to help Rodney with his troubles, but Rodney vehemently refuses Russell’s assistance. After a while, Rodney and Petty disappear during their most recent trip to New Jersey. Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker) promises to solve the mystery of Rodney's disappearance, but Russell is looking for a personal and severe form of revenge. With help from his uncle, Red (Sam Shepard) and a loaded sniper rifle, Russell takes a trip to New Jersey to teach Harlan a lesson he’ll never forget.
First of all, I need to point out some footage from one of my favorite horror films here. During the opening scene, Harlan and his lady friend (it’s hard to tell if they’re actually boyfriend and girlfriend, or if Harlan is just using her as a prostitute) are watching a drive-in movie…and the drive-in movie is The Midnight Meat Train! It took me a few seconds to catch it, but I went nuts, when I finally noticed it. Kudos to whoever selected The Midnight Neat train for the drive-in movie, because they have good taste in horror films!
Anyway, Woody Harrelson delivers the best performance, as the sociopathic scoundrel. Harrelson is a genuinely menacing villain, with a disturbing dark side (i.e. the hot dog scene at the beginning), and Harrelson really pulls everything together with an unflinching and intimidating demeanor. Christian Bale is very convincing as this troubled soul, who’s trying to salvage his brother’s broken life, and towards the end, Bale is able to switch gears by showcasing the persona of an impassive man motivated by revenge.
Casey Affleck? He delivers a top notch performance, as the frustrated and troubled solider, who returns to a world of hopelessness. Affleck nails the Rodney character, because you can feel everything he’s going through. The rage, the disgust, the haunting memories of war, everything. It’s a shame, because with more screen time, Affleck could’ve been a contender for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. But after the calamity in New Jersey, Affleck’s screen time is cut short, and once he disappears, Harrleson and Bale take center stage.
Zoe Saldana did a good job of showing some believable emotion and heartache as Lena. Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker deliver a pair of solid performances, and it’s not fair to judge Sam Shepard, because the Red character is an afterthought here.
Russell serves a prison sentence after committing vehicular homicide, and he returns to an empty life after serving his time. Rodney is in deep trouble with Harlan, Russell and Rodney’s father lost his battle with cancer, Lena is in a relationship with Wesley, and she’s pregnant with her first child from Wesley. To make matters worse, Harlan murders Petty and Rodney after a fight, when Petty refuses to pay Harlan.
Of course, Russell takes matters into his own hands to hunt and kill Harlan. Russell lures Harlan to Pennsylvania with the promise of a cash settlement for Petty’s debts. During a fight, Russell repeatedly shoots Harlan with the sniper rifle, and Russell forces a wounded Harlan to run in an open field. Wesley arrives on the scene with the hopes of talking some sense into Russell, but Russell ignores Wesley’s pleas, and Russell kills Harlan with one shot to the back of the head.
A tense and gut-wrenching series of events, because for a split second, I thought Russell would show some compassion, and allow Harlan to live. Harlan is running, and you see Russell slowly aim the sniper rifle, and there’s a brief moment of hesitation before he actually pulls the trigger. The bottom line is Russell didn’t care anymore. He lost his father, his brother, and the woman of his dreams left him to start a family with another man. In Russell’s mind, he didn’t have anything to live for anymore, so the thought of dying in prison (Russell also murdered one of Harlan cronies at Petty’s tavern) didn’t faze him at all.
And speaking of tension, there’s a scene where Russell and Red visit Harlan's drug house for some recon. Russell plans to buy some drugs, so he can learn more info about Harlan at the same time. In the house, the dealer suspects something fishy, but Russell has the money, so the suspicions die down for a little while. There’s a shot of Harlan in a mirror, as Red and Russell are leaving the house, and Harlan is unaware of their presence. As they prepare to leave the house, the dealer stops Russell and Red, because Russell forgot to pick up his bag of drugs. After an awkward pause, Russell picks up the bag, and they leave the house without any trouble.
Russell and Red’s trip is a real nail-biter, and the close-calls are unreal. For starters, they’re clearly out numbered by a pack of ruthless thugs, and Harlan knows Russell’s face. Earlier in the film, Russell and Harlan had a brief stare-down at Petty’s tavern, so Harlan wouldn’t hesitate to kill Russell and Red, if he spotted Russell. Good stuff.
I enjoyed Out Of The Furnace, but I can’t ignore the obvious missed opportunity here. Casey Affleck portrays a solider, who feels betrayed by his country, because he can’t find a job or any help. Rodney risked his life, and he’s tired of the cold shoulders and slaps in the face (to give an example, a fighter mocks Rodney with salutes during a fight).
Out Of The Furnace never takes the time to explore and analyze the issues facing neglected US soldiers, who have a hard time readjusting to civilian life. There’s the one scene, where Rodney explodes, when Russell urges him to quit the street fighter lifestyle. Rodney recalls the horrors of war, and vents his disgust with the lack of respect he received during his return…but that’s it. Unless, I’m missing something, the heated argument between Russell and Rodney is the only scene, where they truly focused on the hardships returning soldiers are forced to deal with. After that, Out Of The Furnace’s primary focus revolves around Petty and Rodney’s troubles with Harlan, and Russell hunting Harlan for revenge.
Still, I can’t dismiss Out Of The Furnace’s stellar cast, and you’ll see some tense “edge of your seat” moments here. All in all, Out Of The Furnace is a gritty and emotional drama/thriller, featuring a raw tale of revenge in the dismal and deteriorating landscape of the struggling working class. With the way things are going now (overall lukewarm feedback, not living up to the hype in the eyes of some people, etc.), there’s a good chance Out Of The Furnace will miss the boat for any award nominations during Oscar season, but I’ll remember this one as a top ten worthy film in 2013.
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