Movie review: Fiery performances fuel “Furnace”

By Columbus Alive
From the December 5, 2013 edition

If you’re looking for the cinematic antidote for holiday cheer, it might be “Out of the Furnace,” a working-class morality play that’s unrelenting, bleak and full of indelible acting performances.

With Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck and Willem Dafoe all unleashing their inner grittiness, the movie sometimes feels like you’re mainlining testosterone. Not exactly holiday date fare, I know.

In fact, that date would get off to a rocky start before the opening credits, as Harrelson’s rural psychopath Harlan DeGroat establishes himself as a premiere cinematic scumbag with a dehumanizing act against his drive-in date and a brutal assault on a stranger who intervenes.

Elsewhere in the Rust Belt, we meet Russell Baze (Bale), a stoic steelworker who is beset on all sides by hardships, from a dying father to a brother (Affleck) struggling to find direction.

Things are hard for Russell. Things are about to get worse. Much worse.

Director/co-writer Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) turns Russell into a modern-day Job. He’s a good man, trying to do right, caught in a downward spiral not of his own making as the film unfolds more like a good novel.

The world of the working poor and crime is a bit reminiscent of “Winter’s Bone,” and the good guy-bad guy dichotomy evokes “No Country for Old Men.” Neither are exactly cheery films.

Bale remains one of the finest actors working, and without his performance this could well devolve into an overwrought exercise in violence. Along with a supporting performance from Zoe Saldana, the Bale performance gives some heart to the proceedings.

Affleck shows why he’s the best actor in the family. Harrelson, though, is a showstealer. More unhinged, more psychotic than even his “Natural Born Killers” role, he’s the Anton Chigurh of the film, serving the role of monster against which the good must struggle.

Some audiences will, rightly, be put off by all the awfulness onscreen — and while it’s a fair comparison point, don’t expect something on par with “No Country.”

I’d still expect to hear two or three names from this film in the Oscar discussion.

Photo courtesy of Relativity Media