If you're going to aim for Shakespearian heights of characters and storytelling, you'd better deliver the goods. First-time scripter Brad Ingelsby, second-time writer-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) and a castful of actors giving it their best try hard, but ultimately come up short in this grim, gritty tale of vengeance.
Set in 2008, in a sad little Pennsylvania town where locals' aspirations usually stop when they land a lifetime job at the mill, Out of the Furnace introduces two brothers with startlingly different temperaments. Russell (Christian Bale) dutifully if unhappily works at the mill, just like his father, now slowly dying of some mill-related sickness; he goes home each night to his loving girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) and keeps a protective eye out for his troubled younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck).
Rodney, a true piece of work, is recently back home from the war in Iraq, but it's never made clear if it's because he fulfilled his duty or he was asked to leave. What's very clear is that he's got problems with drinking and gambling, and that he keeps losing borrowed money to play the ponies. When Russell spots Rodney, in brooding mode, at an off-track betting locale, it's quickly established that Rodney is a lost soul, and that he and Russell share a relationship that is both tentative and close.
But even before all of this familial business, the film presents its villain: the heartless, fearless, violence-prone and purely evil Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) who not only takes his girlfriend to the drive-in to see Midnight Meat Train, he beats the hell out of her and the Samaritan who tries to help her.
Harlan is a small-time but powerful thug who runs illegal bare-knuckle street fights. So does the less powerful but sketchy John Petty (Willem Dafoe), the "manager" who sets up fights for loose cannon Rodney but owes Harlan a big chunk of change from previous fights gone wrong. So maybe John can loan the hot-headed Rodney to Harlan, have Harlan bet his wad on the opponent, then have Rodney take a fall. Score settled, debt paid. That's if Rodney will go through with taking the fall, improbable since he so enjoys beating the crap out of other people.
There's probably story enough there to easily fill the film's two-hour running time. But the writers have other plans. They want to make things even more difficult for the nice people, send the problematic ones even deeper into crises, and turn the bad guys into absolute monsters. All of which could have worked, if not for some overkill in plotting. Drunk driving and a fatal car crash beget some prison time (the length of which is never revealed, but can sort of be followed by ever-changing beard lengths). Post-prison predicaments lead up to a cliché about how people can never really change, a side story of lost love, and then to some dire situations that end up in backstabbing and ensuing repercussions, along with a couple of brutal deaths and unsurprisingly, planned retribution.
The performances, notably those of Bale, Affleck and Harrelson, hit high marks, and the fight scenes' choreography make them frighteningly realistic. But the movie's heart has a sort of slow beat, and at times seems lost or just misplaced. We know who to root for and who to wish dead, but things get dragged out to the point of caring less about it all. And when the abrupt ending comes swooping in, it leaves us wondering what the heck the last few minutes were about, and what the final stand-alone scene even means. ♦