As I've been writing about film these last few years I find that I'm becoming less enamored with screenplays. Snappy dialogue is great for comedies and the right insights are needed to make sure drama lands at home. These are typically good things and normally I have no problem giving points to the writing. But the more films I experience the more I find that the writer's game is better left to novels or television and less a feature-length cinematic experience.
Out of the Furnace is a perfect example of how quality writing, even backed up by excellent performances, isn't enough to save a movie. It's one of the few movies where a novel would be preferential to the experience of watching the characters act out their scenes before nice lightning and decaying sets. Yes, the presentation gives an idea of what is going through the character's minds, but there's a certain sense of detachment from the story that writer / director Scott Cooper just doesn't have the visual acumen to overcome.
The story roots in men who use their rage as a way to proactively deal with their problems. Russell (Christian Bale) recognizes the people who could threaten him or his family and gets them out of the way. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is psychologically damaged from his military service in Iraq and lashes out due to his depression. Then there's the sadistic Harlan (Woody Harrelson), a man who is the toughest crime boss in his region because he'd rather figure out what his associates are worth dead before he considers doing business with them alive. Each violent approach to life puts one man in the path of another before someone has to fall for the other to move on.
As a writing scenario this intrigues me. All three men are damaged for different reasons and use the same means to carry out different ends. Which is why this must have seen such a sure-fire thing on paper and the screenplay must have been a great read for the producers. The framework is there to explore different worlds and the way a similar philosophy can mean entirely different things depending on the circumstances. All very interesting.
But Cooper makes some decisions with the film that don't make a very good visual transition. The mood lighting that accompanies quite a few of the scenes is there to stress the considerable volume of staring that goes on between the characters. It's in these moments that I start to wonder what they're thinking and what it is they are going to do next as more of a guessing game than an experience. In writing terms these are the perfect moments for an internal dialogue or mental interlude to whatever events brought them to make these decisions. Basically, it seems like all the interesting scenes that explains these people and guides their choices are left offscreen while we are left to watch what little fallout remains.
The mood lighting and disappointingly straightforward dialogue just don't cut it. What mileage Out of the Furnace is able to get out of the scenario has more to do with the strength of the performances and less what is actually brought before the screen. The personalities of Russell, Rodney, and Harlan are explained with bits of expository dialogue that have them defining themselves via dialogue instead of their actions. "I am crazy because of the war" is not an interesting insight in and of itself, and no matter how wounded Affleck makes his character it doesn't help the flat presentation.
The literary-friendly nature of the scenario lends itself to some unusual editing decisions as well. There's so much back story hinted at with the dialogue that years of time-lapse off-screen with little sign about what has changed. A couple of times I had to stop and try to figure out exactly where the film was and why because the point of view changes between the three so freely with no true insight gained from the transitions. Russel loves his lady, Rodney loves his brother, and Harlan loves himself - that information comes through just fine. But without any interesting presentation or overarching visual quality to differentiate the three it's just flat exposition.
Equally thankless are the many subplots that dangle out of the film. There's the noble cop who wants to make sure Russell keeps his honor intact, which casts Forest Whitaker in what amounts to a do-nothing role, and Russel's girlfriend, played by the talented Zoe Saldana, who's largely kept off-screen after snuggling with him for a bit in the first act. She might as well have been written out of the movie entirely since Rodney is given dialogue about her but she barely registers as the film progresses. The only one that comes out of the plot juxtaposition well is the bookie played by Willem Dafoe, who gets to suggest a perverted father / son relationship with the damaged Rodney that grew out of Russel's absence.
As it stands, Out of the Furnace is another entry into an overcrowded subgenre of crime films where bad things happen while current events play out on background TVs and radios. Much like the lazy visual connection with the characters - it's not enough to just say bad things happened and people have to make due. Bad things happen to good people. It's a depressing fact, but boring fiction.
Directed by Scott Cooper.
Screenplay written by Scott Cooper and Brian Ingelsby.
Starring Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck.