Out of the Furnace, Into the Mold

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Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson – I could almost stop right there. These are three of the most exciting male actors working in film today, each of whom has shown at different times that acting for them is merely personal exorcism/therapy session made public, and that they will hurt, maim and possibly kill themselves or anyone stupid enough to try them in their pursuit and exploration of the demons possessing them.

Add to that Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker, and you’ve got the most concentrated group of intense, semi-psychopathic, something-behind-the-eyes male actors on one screen, harder than Fuller’s one, more brooding than Peckinpah’s bunch, and more complex than Boorman’s deliverers.

So what makes Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace so ineffectual, uninteresting and completely besides the point of its audacious setup? All of the classic male story elements are there – father-son, brother-brother, girl-between-two-good-guys, good-versus-evil, tale-of-revenge, and yes, no-holds barred, redneck bare-knuckle boxing.

Fact is, the film tries so hard to be so hard, it loses sight of what really counts, like characters and story. The setup, the environment, the actors – we get the sense that they’re all supposed to stand in for substance, but the problem is, nothing can do that, not even the most interesting group of male actors assembled under one corrugated tin roof.

Why is Casey Affleck’s character so tragic, so messed up? Because Iraq. Oh right. Why is Christian Bale’s character so righteous, so steadfast, so devoted? Because anti-hero. Oh right. Why does he care so much, so deeply? Because brothers. Oh right. Why is Woody Harrelson’s character such a remorseless, frightening monster? Because Woody Harrelson, why else? Right, right, right.

Fact is, the script isn’t very much concerned about the wherefores. What you know is this: this film doesn’t know or understand its own characters. It’s not interested in knowing them. It wants to just wind ’em up and toss them in a cage, and see them bounce off each other. [SPOILER] Affleck’s and Dafoe’s characters are killed off for pretty much this reason only.

At the end of the day, it’s a cookie-cutter film striving for mythological archetypes. It’s a much finer line than the script realizes – a random car accident that forever changes the main character’s life doesn’t have nearly the weight and sense of injustice suffered at the hands of the vengeful, wrathful gods. And when the loop is inevitably closed, there’s no catharsis. Just bewilderment, and disappointment that the greatest male ensemble cast in modern cinema was so utterly wasted.

“Out of the Furnace” is currently streaming on Netflix for U.S. subscribers.

About the author


Mark is a New York City-based filmmaker with a background in theater (as playwright, dramaturg and director) and literature (with focus on modern European literature and literary translation theory). He is currently executive, co-, and associate producing three indie feature films, one set in the avant-garde art scene of 1960s…

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