Christian Bale often oscillates between two acting modes. First, there's Christian Bale the big-screen populist, who springs up in the likes of "Terminator Salvation" and the three Christopher Nolan-directed Batman movies with cocksure swagger and something wounded underneath. Then there's Christian Bale the serious actor, who starves himself for "The Machinist" and "Rescue Dawn" and makes all other actors feel like they simply aren't doing enough earnest morphing for their roles.
Both of those modes are on display in "Out of the Furnace," the new film from co-writer/director Scott Cooper, whose last film, "Crazy Heart," won Jeff Bridges a long-deserved Oscar. Bale is clearly gunning for the same recognition here (more on that in a minute) as a steelworker who seeks to untangle a mystery involving his Iraq War veteran brother (Casey Affleck, wonderful as always), looking into the iffy hills of the Appalachian backwoods to find answers.
But does this combination of serious drama and pulpy suspense actually work? And can the two acting modes of Christian Bale calmly reconcile themselves in one nifty holiday-movie package? Read on for our take on the thriller.
1. The Movie Is Not at All What It's Being Advertised as
Most of the trailers and marketing materials sell "Out of the Furnace" as a hardboiled rust belt revenge movie, which it is ... sort of. But it's much more of a straight drama, somewhat sluggishly paced and more character-centered than the pre-release materials make it out to be. This is either a very good thing or a very bad thing depending on your particular sensibilities, but the point is that the movie that is being sold isn't the movie that is being screened. The actual movie is much moodier and more melodramatic, and there isn't much in the way of rootin'-tootin' backwoods revengin'. Apologies to those who were looking forward to that.
2. Most of It Is a Weird Period Piece -- for No Good Reason
A large portion of the first half of the movie takes place in 2008. There is a brief moment where a character watches some of Ted Kennedy's nomination of Barack Obama at the Democratic National Convention, and there are a handful of references to the moral, financial, and cultural quagmire of the Iraq War. But instead of engaging with the material in some kind of primal (or metaphoric) way, like Andrew Dominik's sorely underrated "Killing Them Softly" does, it just simmers underneath the surface, creating confusion and muddled intent.
3. The Filmmakers Tried Really Hard to Make Zoe Saldana Look Crummy
One of the funniest aspects of a movie almost completely devoid of humor is how the filmmakers tried to make Zoe Saldana, who keeps playing otherworldly characters because her beauty, grace, and charm make her seem positively inhuman, look crummy. She is supposed to be down in the dumps enough to be dating Christian Bale's loser steelworker, but the camera doesn't linger on her petite frame for too long because even in a dirty white wife beater she looks like she belongs on the cover of Vogue. And not having her wear makeup doesn't work when her skin is already flawless. Good try though, guys, seriously.
4. Christian Bale Is the Most Intense Man Ever
Like, so intense. He yells a lot and breaks a phone and fires a gun, but the most intense sequence might be the one he has with Saldana on a rusty old bridge. (Almost anything in this movie could be prefaced by the words "rusty old," just for clarification.) We don't want to spoil anything about the scene, because the plot does take some interesting twists (there's a reason we're being even more vague than usual), but it's a moment of emotional realism and utter devastation that makes an even bigger impact than Bale's showier, more actorly affectations.
5. The Supporting Roles Are All Filled by Tough-Guy Character Actors
"Out of the Furnace" doesn't have a title sequence, so every time somebody new pops into the movie, you're surprised. Oh hey, it's Forrest Whitaker! Is that Sam Shepard? Why, yes it is! Willem Dafoe, is that a weird new haircut you've never tried out in a movie before? We think so! There are also some lesser-known actors who put in performances just as nuanced and lived-in, though Woody Harrelson absolutely steals the show, starting with a pre-title prologue in which he's revealed to be the most vile dude ever.
6. Woody Harrelson Can Be Pretty Evil
Throughout the movie he just becomes more and more of a creep. He's a murderous, drug-dealing country bumpkin who also runs illegal fight clubs, kind of like the Appalachian version of "Only God Forgives." He shoots heroin in between his toes and beats people up at the drive-in. The drive-in for crying out loud!
7. "Justified" Is Better
If you want backwoods fighting and people living in "hollers," the FX series "Justified," based on a character created by the dearly departed Elmore Leonard, does the job way better, with a lot less fat.
8. Much of the Plot Hangs on Coincidence
Early in the movie an event happens that dramatically changes the course of one of the characters' lives (as well as the general direction of the movie), and this happens, as far as the audience can tell, by pure coincidence. It's a goof. A cosmic gag. Later, it's revealed that this event is tied to a specific character trait. But at the time, possibly because of poor filmmaking on Cooper's part, it seems like it's just some random thing that happens. And things that just happen aren't really enough to build a dramatic foundation on. Similarly, at another point in the movie, a murder is accidentally recorded on someone's voice mail because a character happens to dislodge his cell phone from his pocket.
9. It's Depressing as Hell
Seriously, this isn't exactly "Frozen." It's a yuletide bummer. Although it will probably make you feel better about your own life, unless you live in a boarded up shack in the woods with a murderous meth-head for a friend. Then you'll probably be even more depressed.
10. The Last Shot Is Baffling
Please write to us explaining the last shot of "Out of the Furnace." It's truly more befuddling than those 27 frames of white at the tail end of "All Is Lost" or the curlicue climax of "Inside Llewyn Davis." It really is unreal. And totally unclear, too.
"Out of the Furnace" opens this Friday, December 6.