Scott Cooper follows up his 2009 debut feature, Crazy Heart, with a moody and self-conscious thriller that isn’t entirely a step in the right direction.

Director Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace is a thriller with a lot on its mind.  Set against the backdrop of the American Rust Belt, it portrays the lives of two blue-collar brothers, played by Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, in the post 9/11 era.  The time shifts throughout the narrative from the presidential election of 2008 to the immediate 2013. Affleck plays the younger of the two brothers, Rodney, who has a substantial gambling problem and owes money to all the wrong people.  He is also an Iraq War veteran who, after four long tours of duty, is suffering from PTSD.  Bale plays Rodney’s older brother, Russell, who works long hard hours in one of the last dying steel mills in Pennsylvania, while also caring for his terminally-ill father — AND trying to fulfill his longtime girlfriend’s needs of a stable relationship and a baby (played by the increasingly beautiful Zoe Saldaña). The film uses its backdrop and these characters to comment on the modern state of America, including the psychological and societal abandonment of our veterans, the collapse of our once mighty steel industry, how drugs such as crack-cocaine are the new industrial frontier, and the ineptitude of our modern police force due to corruption, bribes and payoffs.  It has elements that instantly recall scenes from The Deer Hunter and last year’s underrated Killing Them Softly.  But, Out of the Furnace lacks the power and subtleties of those films, instead choosing to bludgeon the viewer with its metaphors by the use of on-the-nose montages and slow, dramatic build-up.  Its self-conscious, somber tone and ham-fisted allegories end up becoming the picture’s undoing.

The film spends its opening twenty or so minutes introducing us to its characters and the all too real world that they live in.  It’s a prolonged unraveling of basic plot elements, but it’s also the film’s strongest segment.  The narrative gets going once Russell has an alcohol-influenced car accident, killing another driver and a child.  He is sent to jail, leaving Rodney to take care of their father in-between tours of duty. After what seems to be five years (the film’s depiction of the passage of time is hazy at best, often jump cutting far into the future and well into a scene with little set-up), Russell is released from jail only to find his father has passed, his girlfriend has hooked-up — and is pregnant with — the local cop’s baby, and that his brother is now illegally bare-knuckle boxing in order to pay off old debts.  Things get much worse when Rodney decides to fight for some “inbred” Jersey hill dwellers (led by a committed, Woody Harrelson as Harlan DeGroat, though wavering on the precipice of over the top) and ends up missing.  After the cops claim the area in which Rodney disappeared is untouchable, Russell decides to take matters into his own hands.  From here the film falls in line with the typical revenge thriller format and events become much more genre-efficient.

Enough cannot be said about the talent that Cooper has assembled, with Affleck and Bale being only the tip of the iceberg.  The likes of Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, and Sam Shepard take on supporting roles while character actors such as Tom Bower show up in extended cameos.  The problem lies in that many of their roles are underwritten, leaving most of them with little to do.  Whitaker comes off the worst, with a strange put-upon gravel in his voice and a character who seems incapable of doing his job as the local police authority.  His big scene comes in the film’s final moments and his level of incompetence leaves the ending both humorous and hollow. Zoe Saldaña provides the narrative with an emotional center, but once events get going her character becomes an afterthought.  Shepard is strong as Russell and Rodney’s uncle, but his character too falls by the wayside in the final act.  It is up to Bale to hold the picture together and, for the most part, he succeeds.  It’s some of the most subtle work of his career and after a bit of showboating in this year’s American Hustle, Out of the Furnace provides us with a nice reminder of how much Bale can convey on-screen by saying and doing so little.

The gritty, golden-hued cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is some of the year’s best lensing.  His employment of isolationist longshots in various scenes contain moments of great power and melancholy beauty.  The editing by David Rosenbloom is haphazard and painfully obtuse, driving home the film’s mixed messages like a sledgehammer.  The score by Dickon Hinchliffe does everything in its capacity to conform to the director’s self-important and languid vision.  Director Scott Cooper is not without talent, and he can certainly get great performances from his actors as evidenced by Jeff Bridges’ critically acclaimed and Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart.  Unfortunately, his aesthetic reeks of film school pretension, and he leaves little room for nuance.  Out of the Furnace is not without its moments, but its heavy-handedness and lack of character development leave it struggling desperately to leave a mark.  With a cast this good and a commentary so rife with possibilities, the film should have been a home run.  Instead, it is one of the most disappointing films of 2013.

Grade: C

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