Permit me to introduce my issues with Out of the Furnace by borrowing from a chunk of its screenplay.
Moments prior to the scene copied below, Christian Bale’s Russell Baze had attempted to procure drugs from a dealer at the home of Woody Harrelson’s Harlan DeGroat, the man he believes has something to do with the disappearance of his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). DeGroat wasn’t in, but it didn’t matter: Baze was there on a fact-finding mission, which he made obvious by his deeply suspicious demeanour, the asking of far too many questions and a refusal to sample to product he was purchasing. After being satisfied by “Meth Guy”‘s answers, and completing his transaction, he leaves…
INT./EXT. METH HOUSE – FIRST FLOOR – MOMENTS LATER
BAZE and RED glance into each room and move toward the front door. Suddenly, a VOICE turns them around...
They both turn to find METH GUY holding their bag of METH.
Baze moves toward him.
Meth Guy holds it up and slightly pulls it back...
Who’d you say you were?
... I didn’t.
Baze holds Meth Guy’s look for a long, uncomfortable beat. Grabs the meth from Meth Guy.
Baze pockets the PURE TINA and moves to his truck...
It’s hardly Breaking Bad, is it?
This scene is only a small sample of the storytelling mistakes made by Scott Cooper’s second feature. In it, apparently rational characters behave irrationally for the sole purpose of drawing out emotionally-manipulative drama. It does no more than any number of low-rent horror films, in which the victim makes bad decisions that ensure they remain in the killer’s grasp. But at least low-rent horror films aren’t this worthy.
The trouble is, it feels like a screenplay, so none of it is ever authentic. It eulogises Syd Field and his strictures about how everything has to pay off. Used carefully, these fundamentals underpin the best scripts, but here they don’t feel like they’ve advanced beyond a first draft. When, in an early scene, Christian Bale’s Baze drunk-drives home, hits a car (whilst adjusting a dial on his radio!) and kills a young child, we’re expected to sympathise with his mistake because we’ve just seen him quietly pay off his brother’s gambling debt. But his urgency to do so seems misplaced given the debt belongs to Willem Dafoe’s Nicest Loan Shark Ever, and there’s never any justification for his inability to turn down the drink, knowing that he has to drive home later. The fact that Times Is Hard just doesn’t work for me.
The backdrop for all of this worthiness is the destruction of the American small town, blamed on loss of industry and rises in crime and drug abuse. DP Masanobu Takayanagi shoots Braddock, PA like it’s a town being eaten away by rust, and it’s a shame his talents are wasted on this script (the poor man shot Warrior too, which committed many of the same crimes against storytelling). These are the sorts of stories that come out of these small towns, but every time I see one on screen I wonder how many better, more honest stories there are to tell. I don’t doubt that the world has plenty of drug dealers and illegal boxing matches and guns and murder. But they’re not the majority Hollywood might have us believe. In any case, Killing Them Softly beat this film to the punch by more than a year, and managed to say more about the financial crisis whilst maintaining a healthy wit.
Bale, Harrelson, Dafoe… this sort of weak sauce doesn’t offer much to test them. Zoe Saldana plays the film’s only real female character, the object of Russell’s affections who has moved on to and been knocked up by Forest Whitaker’s over-forgiving sheriff before Russell was out of jail. At one time, this was been a project for Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose names remain in the extensive list of producers. With such high caliber names attached, perhaps it looked better on paper. But that’s certainly where its problems lie.
Out of the Furnace is in UK cinemas on January 29th.