It’s looking like whenever you see Casey Affleck in a movie’s credits, you can expect a standard genre B picture slowed down and tarted up: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (oh, that title), Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (most pretentious title of the century?), and now Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace. (Thank the Lord for a title that’s merely boring and generic.) This time, Affleck plays Rodney Baze, a damaged Iraq vet who refuses to spend his days at the local mill alongside the other sheeple in his small Pennsylvania town (“I give my life for this country, what’s it fucking done for me?”), choosing instead to participate in brutal, bare-knuckle fights — agreeing to “take a fall” to help his patrons win big money but unable to resist pasting opponents in the ring. Affleck’s line readings would be too mumbly and mulish even for the glory days of fifties Method mama’s boys, and he might as well be wearing a T-shirt that says, “Shoot Me.” Fortunately, he’s not the lead — that honor goes to Christian Bale as his older sibling, Russell, who tries to be his brother’s keeper but you know how that goes. After a long time staring at his face in various mirrors, Bale picks up a shotgun to do what Liam Neeson would have done ten times as well in a tenth of the time and without the fancy lighting. We’re supposed to take this more seriously because it takes itself more seriously.
Cooper (Crazy Heart) makes sure that in nearly every establishing shot we see the giant mill that dwarfs the tiny rundown town, but he goes out of his way not to orient us the rest of the time. He wants us to infer the aftermath of a terrible accident caused by Russell, and to guess at the nature and duration of the penalty. The opacity reminded me of the time I helped a girlfriend edit a story she wrote: After I’d trimmed all the repetitions and straightened out the confusing syntax, she reread it and said, “Huh. There’s nothing here, is there?” No, there wasn’t, and for all Cooper’s longeurs, there’s not much new in the scenes in which Russell pines for the girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) who left him while he was in prison, for the dull, stable police chief (Forest Whitaker). You read that right: Forest Whittaker. Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepard can also be found loitering around the edges of the picture.
A movie like Out of the Furnace needs an especially sadistic psychopath to hold our interest, and it has one in Woody Harrelson as a man called Harlan DeGroat. He organizes brutal fights, deals drugs, and kills people in the rough hills of Bergen County, New Jersey. Snark aside, there is actually a fair amount of mystery that shrouds Jersey’s Ramapo mountain range, and a glance this morning at the local headlines confirms that its denizens are fighting mad over Cooper’s use of family names of current Ramapogh Native Americans — in particular DeGroat and Van Dunk. I don’t blame them a bit for thinking they’ve been slimed. Harrelson looks like the scarred, lurching, inbred cannibal Pluto played by Michael Berryman in Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. Injecting what appears to be meth between his toes is literally the sanest thing he does in the whole film.
Cooper kicks off Out of the Furnace with a scene in which DeGroat knocks his date around at a drive-in while watching The Midnight Meat Train — it’s meant to create all sorts of parallels between what’s happening onscreen and in the real world. One normally intelligent critic says this “emphasizes Cooper’s old-school respect for the viewer experience of careful, collective looking, pulling back to show the outdoor screen within the screen, and the spectators ogling it like motorists at church.” I don’t know what that means, either, but I bet it made Cooper’s millennium. The biggest howler is a sequence in which Cooper cuts back and forth between Shepard and Bale (good as usual, though a little dull) dragging a dead, gutted deer, and Affleck entering the ring in the backwoods inbred portal of hell that is Bergen County, New Jersey. Ozarks moviegoers will know they’ve dodged a bullet.