I always appreciate it when a movie is bleak because movies don’t have to be bleak. Movies don’t have to be anything more than feel-good parables involving Dracula, talking snowmen, or Tim Allen comically bonking his head off of kitchen cabinets, and yet some movies are bold enough to remind us that out there in this big blue marble we call life, there are decapitated babies, there are big piles of feet, and there are people who are compelled to tell us all about the babies and the feet before they shriek uncontrollably into their hoodies. This is life. This is real life, man! And movies like “Out of the Furnace” aren’t afraid to squirt real life into our eyes and get it all over our hair.
However, there should be limits on the amount of real life that are injected into movies. You can’t keep piling misery on top of tragedy on top of sorrow because the film will become too bleak and start encroaching into the realm of parody. Case in point, “Out of the Furnace” opens with Woody Harrelson leaning outside of his car to vomit. After his girlfriend mildly teases him, he grabs a hot dog, shoves it down her throat, smashes her forehead into the dashboard, and then punches a Good Samaritan in the Adam’s apple as he storms off.
From there, things somehow grow increasingly more unfortunate as we’re introduced to Christian Bale’s character: a salt-of-the-earth steel mill worker who is sent to prison for accidentally committing manslaughter and winds up not being there for his dying father and losing his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) to a local police officer who looks like a “Smokey and the Bandit”-era Jackie Gleason and sounds like an irascible tuba from a Disney cartoon (Forest Whitaker). If that’s not sad enough, there’s also Casey Affleck as Bale’s younger brother, an Iraq war veteran who can’t adjust to civilian life, owes a kindly sleazebag (Willem Dafoe) thousands of dollars in gambling debts, and is forced into participating in illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches.
All of these oily, unwashed characters shout at, buy meth from, and eventually murder each other within the confines of abandoned farmhouses in a decaying Central Pennsylvania town. There’s not a single moment where somebody receives a cookie bouquet or is surprised by the sight of a kitten riding around on a Roomba. It’s just unceasing misery and sadness. Reality isn’t as bleak as this movie, and reality is where Dom DeLuise and Jonathan Winters died.
Yet, in spite of how depressing this movie can be, the more tragic elements are simply just window dressing. If you can look beyond the scenes where somebody injects crank in between their toes or sucks menacingly on a lollipop, you’re left with a very predictable story about a noble boxer who refuses to take a dive. Basically, it’s the kind of storyline that was considered old hat and clichéd back in the ‘40s. Additionally, the characters are either underwritten or one-dimensional. There’s no subtlety or nuance behind Bale’s and Harrelson’s characters. One is good, the other is pure evil, and that’s it. They’re basically just He-Man and Skeletor after a flannel-heavy Walmart makeover.
But still, in spite of these flaws, it’s hard to dislike a movie even this overtly pessimistic. “Out of the Furnace” isn’t afraid to be straight with us, to grab you by the shoulders and announce that your days at the iron mill are numbered, your girlfriend never loved you, and your brother is a weird idiot who just sits in a car pointlessly revving the engine with a dead, distant look on his face. True, it’s a bit much, but do you think “The Avengers” is going to tell you that? Here’s a hint – “The Avengers” is not your friend.
Rating: W W V