It’s the AFI Fest‘s big world premiere this year, and we begin with Variety‘s Scott Foundas: “The rusted-out soul of steel-town America and the ghosts of the 1970s post-Vietnam Hollywood cinema haunt Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, a starkly powerful drama that in some ways feels like an Iraq-era bookend to The Deer Hunter, with bare-knuckle boxing substituted for Russian roulette. A much darker and less audience-friendly package than Cooper’s Oscar-winning 2009 debut, Crazy Heart, but graced by the same lyrical sense of worn-down American lives, this slow-burning drama should earn deserved praise for the top-drawer performances of stars Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and a truly frightening Woody Harrelson.”
Todd McCarthy in the Hollywood Reporter: “Set in 2008—as evidenced by a TV clip of Ted Kennedy enthusing about Barack Obama at the Democratic convention—the central focus of the script by Brad Ingelsby and the director is the downward-spiraling lives of the Baze brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck). While their dad is expiring from cancer, Russell works at a mill that doesn’t figure to be around much longer, while Rodney accumulates gambling debts between multiple tours of duty in Iraq. Things go from bad to worse when Russell does a stretch in prison for negligence in a fatal auto accident. By the time he gets out, his girl Lena (Zoe Saldana) has taken up with the sheriff (Forest Whitaker), while Rodney has begun trying to pay back what he owes to local bookie Petty (Willem Dafoe) by participating in illegal fare-knuckle fights that have all the savoriness of cockfighting contests.”
For Charlie Schmidlin, writing at the Playlist, where he gives it a B, “the film’s knowledge of its genre boundaries proves its most interesting element, which in turn enables such quality performances from the stellar cast. As fatalistic ciphers their arcs are fairly clear, but the instinctive, measured way in which Cooper treats each conventional story beat—prolonged enormously in some cases, simply a brief scene in others—surprises you with its execution…. Perhaps the most understated and enigmatic contribution, though, is from Sam Shepard, playing Red, the brothers’ uncle.”
“For me,” writes In Contention‘s Kristopher Tapley, “the stunning chiaroscuro of Masanobu Takayanagi’s photography is a big takeaway, to be sure, but something that has stood out since the very first time I saw the film and has managed to only deepen upon consequent viewings is Christian Bale’s unparalleled leading performance as Russell Baze.” This is “the best performance he has ever delivered, and obviously, that’s saying something.”
At the same time, TheWrap‘s Steve Pond reminds that, “as one viewer said afterwards, ‘Nobody can play a crazy motherfucker like Woody Harrelson.'”
Updates, 11/15: “As predictable as its outcome may be, which feels like watching a slow motion train wreck,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema, “even an oddly emotional distance from all its supporting characters can’t distract from Cooper’s adept execution, giving us familiar characters in familiar scenarios via subtlety effective bits and pieces rather than being inveigled by showy flairs or hysterical melodrama. It’s a film that’s hard to love, and a rather obvious homage to Cimino’s The Deer Hunter may distract more than enhance the narrative fabric. But regardless of all this, at its core it features a pair of heart rending performances that transcend the film’s unsurprising terrain.”
“You could melt iron in the heat generated by Christian Bale’s sizzling performance in Scott Cooper’s dark recessionary drama,” writes Screen‘s Lee Marshall.
Update, 11/20: “The character played by Woody Harrelson—portrayed as an ‘inbred’ psychopath who deals hard drugs from a secluded community in New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains—is so obviously inspired by the people who actually live in New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains that you wonder if anyone involved with the film, from Cooper to Relativity Media, ever thought to consult a lawyer; you hope they bought E&O insurance.” John Anderson explains at Thompson on Hollywood.
Updates, 12/6: “In movies, the working class often serves as a sacrificial emblem of the failure of the American dream, one that these days is often embellished with lovingly photographed decay and an elegiac air,” begins Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “Set in a corroded stretch of the Rust Belt, Out of the Furnace ups the ante with a story of two blue-collar brothers—a steel mill welder and a former soldier—who are as totemic as the figures immortalized in a Works Progress Administration mural. It’s a heavy, solemn tale of blood ties that turns into a melodramatic gusher filled with abstractions about masculinity, America and violence, but brought to specific, exciting life by Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson.”
It’s “a thriller whose strategic, exposition-dodging design proceeds with near-total effortlessness,” writes R. Kurt Osenlund at Slant. “A canny visual storyteller, Cooper lets his imagery do the talking, and it’s ultimately fitting that the movie kicks off with a bloody bang at a drive-in. Not only does the oddball opener introduce the sociopathy of antagonist Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), who beats his date and a bystander while watching the 2008 adaptation of Clive Barker’s The Midnight Meat Train, it 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.”
For RogerEbert.com‘s Matt Zoller Seitz, Furnace “hits some of the same notes as The Deer Hunter and Bruce Springsteen’s early albums—Darkness at the Edge of Town and Nebraska especially. Unfortunately this film has none of their urgency or sense of control; for long stretches it just doesn’t seem to have any idea what, exactly, it wants to say, or be.”
Nathan Rabin at the Dissolve: “Reduced to its broad outlines, Out of the Furnace doesn’t sound terribly dissimilar from the schlocky recent Sylvester Stallone-written Jason Statham vehicle Homefront, which similarly pits a stoic protagonist against the minions of a small-town meth kingpin. But the film’s novelistic sensibility and arty ambition are more similar to 2013’s grim, uncompromising A Place Beyond the Pines.”
“Affleck’s line readings would be too mumbly and mulish even for the glory days of fifties Method mama’s boys,” writes New York‘s David Edelstein, “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.”
Stephanie Zacharek in the Voice: “The picture is earnest to a fault, coming off like an exploration of how ‘the little people’ live, so carefully written that it veritably trumpets how remote it is from the grittiness of its subject matter.”
More from Shaun Brady (Philadelphia City Paper, C+), Jesse Hassenger (L), Glenn Heath Jr. (San Diego City Beat), Robert Horton (Herald), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 3/5), Genevieve Valentine (Philadelphia Weekly), Morgan Wilcock (Film Comment), and Scott Wilson (Nashville Scene).