Blu-ray Review: Out of the Furnace

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Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) has crafted a supremely depressing, mostly compelling mood piece with Out of the Furnace. Though it didn’t find an audience during its fall 2013 theatrical release, the cast alone practically ensures it will connect with viewers now that it’s on Blu-ray. Co-produced by luminaries including Leonardo DiCaprio and Ridley Scott, just consider the cast list: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard, and Forest Whitaker. Cooper was working with a dream team lineup for this relentlessly downbeat tale of a Pennsylvania steel mill worker. The environment he creates is grippingly believable. Despite an odd lack of narrative focus, with a meandering plot that pursues various tangents without always following through, Out of the Furnace is ultimately well worth viewing as an acting showcase.

Director Cooper (who co-scripted with Brad Ingelsby) does an exemplary job of establishing a motley crew of put-upon characters, all aimlessly operating in the dilapidated borough of North Braddock, circa 2008. At the center of it all is Russell Baze (Bale), a steel mill worker helping to care for his terminally-ill father. Baze’s world is rocked by an at-fault accident that lands him a stretch in prison. By the time he’s out, his brother Rodney (Affleck) has returned from an ill-fated tour of duty in Iraq with severe PTSD. Rodney’s debilitating gambling addiction leads him to take up bare-knuckled boxing as a way to pay off his debts. He’s tough, scrappy fighter but he’s not digging himself out of the financial hole he’s dug.

Out of the Furnace 1 TMR.jpgAmidst the drama between the two Baze brothers, as well as Rodney’s loan shark John Petty (Dafoe), is an above-the-law, drug dealing psycho named Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson). When we first meet DeGroat, he’s humiliating his date at a drive-in movie, subsequently pummeling a Good Samaritan (Carl Ciarfalio) who comes to the woman’s defense. DeGroat is a monstrosity, a highly disturbed individual driven by some unknown source of furious hatred. Petty arranges for a high stakes fight between DeGroat and Rodney, with the latter instructed to “take a dive” in order to help Petty pay off his own debts. The outcome of the fight, and later the disappearance of Rodney, drags Russell into a very dangerous situation.

To say anymore would be to reveal too much. Suffice it to say that the film lacks a basic feeling of thematic cohesion. In the end, this shortcoming is compensated for by the fully committed performances of everyone in the main cast. Harrelson, in particular, is in fine scene-stealing form, turning what could’ve easily been a garden variety psycho into a truly nightmarish villain (his performance hits even harder after having just seen his comparatively mild-mannered nuances in HBO’s True Detective). It’s frustrating that Furnace does so many things right, while still managing to be something less than the sum of its parts.

Out of the Furnace 2 TMR.jpgMasanobu Takayanagi’s 35mm cinematography is richly evocative of its dour setting, presented on Blu-ray in a very strong 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer. Much of Furnace plays out in shadows and nighttime settings, resulting in a consistently dark look—even daylight scenes are relatively muted. From the fiery glow of molten steel at the mill to the grimy mud of the lots used for fights, fine detail is evident throughout. Fans of Pearl Jam will love the way the DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack showcases their powerful song “Release.” Dialogue is solid, but what really impresses are the sickeningly realistic whacks of punches landing during the viscerally effective fight sequences. Surround activity is somewhat restrained, but then again so is the overall sound design.

Out of the Furnace 3 TMR.jpgFour featurettes, each running less than ten minutes, are all that’s included as special features. The best of the bunch is “The Music of Out of the Furnace,” during which director Cooper shares his process for selecting music cues. “Inspiration,” at a paltry three minutes, is probably the least useful piece, focusing on unrelated films that happened to inspire the main cast members. The Blu-ray also includes an UltraViolet digital copy.

In the end, Out of the Furnace comes across as something of a shaggy dog story. There is more than enough evidence present to indicate the filmmakers had a strong sense of purpose, it just didn’t quite gel in the final edit. Though the film’s episodic nature is a weak point, the edgy, angry interactions between the authentically portrayed characters make it well worth watching.

Images: Relativity Media/20th Century Fox

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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