From Scott Cooper, the critically acclaimed writer and director of Crazy Heart, comes a gripping and powerful drama about family, fate, circumstance and justice. Russell Baze (Bale) leads a dead-end life – he works a meaningless steel mill job all day, and cares for his terminally ill father at night. When Russell's brother Rodney (Affleck) returns home from Iraq, he is lured into one of the Northeast's most ruthless crime rings and mysteriously disappears. When the police fail to solve the case, Russell puts his life at risk in order to seek justice for his brother.
Though Wall Street may be booming at the moment, Main Street - in many rural regions of the country - is still a bust. Economically depressed small towns continue on what often seems like an irreversible downward spiral, as residents struggle to make ends meet on meager wages and fight to keep their industrial jobs. 'Out of the Furnace' explores one such battered borough and the bleak existence of a close-knit family that's rocked by a series of hard knocks. Writer-director Scott Cooper ('Crazy Heart') possesses a knack for finely etched character studies, but here, his story lets him down. Unendurably downbeat and wrenching, this intimate drama often packs a visceral punch, but never really connects on an emotional level. Cooper tries hard to reach us, but his characters don't resonate and the action only succeeds in numbing us to the film's core message of how violence infiltrates and overtakes our society.
The Baze brood ekes out a tenuous existence in western Pennsylvania's Rust Belt, where steel mills dot the landscape and an industrial haze clouds the sky. Like his father before him, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) toils dutifully, working long hours in rough conditions in the hope of one day achieving a better life. He also struggles to keep his splintering family together, caring for his terminally ill dad and trying to keep his disillusioned brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) on the straight-and-narrow after a devastating tour of duty in Iraq. The one bright spot in Russell's dreary life is his relationship with the lovely Lena (Zoe Saldana), but a freak accident sends Russell to prison and jeopardizes all he holds dear. When he's released a few years later, much has changed, especially Rodney, who's buckled under the weight of responsibility in Russell's absence and become further disheartened. To release his pent-up rage, satisfy his self-destructive tendencies, and make some "easy" money, Rodney becomes a professional streetfighter, yet when he crosses paths with the despicable Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), the leader of a fringe group of mountain men specializing in organized crime, the consequences could shatter everyone's lives.
In many ways, 'Out of the Furnace' is a typical good vs. evil yarn, and Cooper shows us right off the bat that in this day and age, nefarious forces enjoy a decided advantage. As times get tough and life beats us down, we may choose to reject society's established rules and make up our own, abiding by a more barbaric code with simple, black-and-white guidelines. Nice guys don't just finish last in this dog-eat-dog world; they're trampled on, ground up, and spit out by people who are immune to tenderness, empathy, and respect. Cooper aptly depicts the harshness and severity of such an environment, and can't hide his disdain for it, but with no redemption or glimmer of hope, he alienates his audience. I don't mind depressing stories if I can latch on to a relatable theme that can somehow inspire me, but 'Out of the Furnace' wallows in its anger and self-pity, and after a while I didn't want to subject myself to such ugliness any longer.
Cooper paints a frank, unapologetic portrait of a branch of American society that all too often gets swept under the rug, and from that standpoint, his film is admirable. Yet despite some exciting fight scenes and a nicely executed final showdown, there's not much here to hook the viewer. This is not at all a pleasant film to watch, though its excellent direction and the superior work of the impressive ensemble cast that also includes Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Shepard heightens its relevance. But even fine actors can't always engender empathy for their characters, and that's where 'Out of the Furnace' falters most. The Baze brothers are likeable and their predicaments concern us, but we never feel fully invested in their lives. Cooper keeps us at arm's length, and such detachment provokes an ambivalent attitude toward the figures on the screen and the movie as a whole.
Bale brings plenty of brooding intensity to his low-key role and creates fine chemistry with Affleck, Saldana, and Shepard. It's hard to reconcile the lean, toned Bale of 'Out of the Furnace' with his overweight, disheveled appearance in 'American Hustle,' but that's what makes him such an interesting actor, and he fully inhabits his part. Affleck is equally good, filing a natural and affecting portrayal, while Harrelson tries to outdo Javier Bardem in the scary villain department as the ruthless, sadistic, lollipop-sucking crime boss. He comes close, but there's a cartoonish quality about Harrelson's work that keeps it from achieving maximum impact.
'Out of the Furnace' throws us into the fire and engulfs us in the flames of a degenerating society. Not many people will want to go there, but if you have the stomach for an unsettling story with only a glimpse or two of fleeting joy, then you might find this well-made film interesting.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Out of the Furnace' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The 50GB dual-layer disc resides inside, along with a leaflet outlining how to access the Digital HD Ultraviolet copy. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'Robocop' and 'The Counselor' precede the full-motion menu with music.
With its dilapidated settings, industrial backdrops, and overall sense of doom, 'Out of the Furnace' isn't the most vibrant-looking motion picture, but Fox's 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer represents the film's original appearance well. Excellent contrast and clarity, along with a faint grain structure that's more pronounced in some scenes than others, distinguish this strong rendering, which is free of any nicks, marks, or scratches. There's not much color, save for the verdant hues of the surrounding forestry, but what's on display appears natural and true. Rich blacks supply necessary depth and are largely immune to crush, whites are bright, and fleshtones are spot on.
Razor sharp close-ups highlight the actors' scraggly beards, scruffy faces, and weathered skin well, in addition to Saldana's no-makeup loveliness. Shadow delineation is also quite good, and background elements are always easy to discern. No banding, noise, or pixelation occur, and any digital doctoring escapes notice. This is another winning transfer from Fox that does this new release proud.
Dialogue is the most essential aspect of any movie, and though this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track features generally well-modulated sound, I found conversations to be very difficult to comprehend, even when spoken in normal tones. The rural dialects can be tough to decipher, but there's a muffled quality to several exchanges that almost had me reaching for the remote so I could turn on the subtitles. Ambient effects and sonic accents, such as the steel mill machinery, gunshots, and fisticuffs, fare much better, exhibiting a crispness of tone that adds palpable impact to the proceedings. Surround activity is present, but largely unobtrusive, with faint bleeds supplying welcome aural texture. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with ease, but the subwoofer doesn't get much of a workout, as bass frequencies are sparingly employed.
Fine fidelity and tonal depth distinguish the music score, which enjoys a nice surround presence and fills the room with ease. No imperfections, such as hiss, pops, or crackles, intrude, and no distortion creeps into the mix. If the dialogue were easier to understand, this track would earn high marks, but because the spoken word is often muddled, the audio's impact - and score - is reduced.
A few supplements provide the film with some essential context and perspective. A scene-specific audio commentary with Cooper would have provided even more insight, but sadly is not included.
Featurette: "Inspiration" (HD, 3 minutes) - The film's principal actors briefly discuss what motivated them to become performers. Sam Shepard, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, and Christian Bale all particpate, and some of their responses may surprise you.
Featurette: "Scott Cooper" (HD, 7 minutes) - This thinly disguised testimonial to the talents of the writer-director examines Cooper's intimate relationship with his actors, his confidence, and the genesis of the screenplay. His cast heaps praise upon him, and Cooper himself discusses the movie's meaning and the importance of its location.
Featurette: "Crafting the Fight Scenes" (HD, 5 minutes) - The film's stunt coordinator talks about training Affleck and Harrelson, and how their natural athletic ability enabled them to make the fight choreography look real. Plenty of rehearsal clips back up his comments.
Featurette: "The Music of 'Out of the Furnace'" (HD, 9 minutes) - Cooper and composer Dickon Hinchliffe discuss the inspirations and influences that led to the film's eclectic music, and how they hope the songs and score reflect the grittiness of the industrial steel mill setting. They also fondly recall their recording experiences at the famed Abbey Road studios.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The film's original preview somewhat sugarcoats the movie's downbeat nature.
Dark, depressing, and hopelessly bleak, 'Out of the Furnace' makes a sober statement about the prevalence and futility of violence in our society and the dead-end nature of many American lives. Though it contains excellent performances from an award-winning cast that includes Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, and Willem Dafoe, and is directed with sensitivity and commitment by Scott Cooper, this downbeat film is tough to take and not very pleasant to watch. Fox's Blu-ray features an excellent video transfer, somewhat problematic audio, and a few interesting supplements. Cooper handles the important subject matter well, but this is not a movie with much entertainment value. It's worth a look for fans of the actor and director, and for those who appreciate challenging topics, but others might want to skip this rough, uncomfortable film.