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A too-slow burn Out of the Furnace'

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Out of the Furnace' Out of the Furnace'

Film fails to maximize its potential

December is the time when movie studios start trotting out the 'prestige' pictures in earnest. These are the films that are designed to be 'important,' films that are built specifically to rake in award nominations for the companies that make them.

And that's great; regardless of the motivation behind them, quality movies should always be welcomed into the marketplace, if only to counterbalance the CGI-laden cash grabs with numbers after their titles. We all love superhero movies and rude comedies, but sometimes we're looking for a bit more substance.

Of course, sometimes prestige isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Take 'Out of the Furnace,' the second feature from 'Crazy Heart' director Scott Cooper (who also co-wrote the script). This is a movie that, from the outside, appears to have all the pieces to become a critical darling. It's an all-star cast playing ordinary people in a gritty setting where the conflicts are insular and personal.

So why doesn't it work?

Russell Baze (Christian Bale; 'The Dark Knight Rises') is a regular guy living in a small Pennsylvania town. He works at the local mill and helps care for his ailing father with the help of his Uncle Red (Sam Shepard; 'Mud'). His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck; 'Ain't Them Bodies Saints') is in the military, shuttling back and forth from the Middle East as he engages in multiple tours of duty. Russell is carving out a life for himself alongside his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana; 'Star Trek Into Darkness').

But his life changes following a drunk driving incident. He goes to prison for a stretch and when he gets out, everything has changed. His father has passed away. Lena has left him for town police chief Wesley (Forest Whitaker; 'Lee Daniels' The Butler'). The directionless Rodney has gotten caught up in an underground fighting ring at the behest of local hoodlum John Petty (Willem Dafoe; 'Nymphomaniac'). Russell does his best to just keep his head down and move forward.

Unfortunately, John and Rodney wind up getting tangled up with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson; 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'), a thug from the hills whose illicit empire is fueled by drugs and blood sport. And when Rodney disappears and the authorities prove powerless, Russell takes it upon himself to track down his brother.

Again, all the pieces are there. This movie should be excellent; the cast is outstanding and the storyline engaging enough. But it just rings hollow. Perhaps the biggest problem is director Cooper's seeming desire to turn 'Out of the Furnace' into some sort of message movie, talking about the state of our society using these small-town folks as avatars. But rather than feeling inspired or insightful, it comes off as a bit ham-fisted.

That isn't the fault of the cast, by the way, who are almost all outstanding. It's a great part for Bale and he inhabits it fully; his Russell is a man rolling with every punch that the universe throws at him, maintaining his dignity all the way. The hit-or-miss Affleck is a hit here, with Rodney's seething rage and general malaise apparent in his every move. Shepard, Dafoe and Whitaker are all top-notch talent, doing fine work in their limited screen time. It occasionally feels like each of them had quality stuff wind up on the cutting room floor; each man feels underused. And Harrelson is in his crazy scenery-chewing glory as DeGroat he's all sinister snarls and mumbled malevolence; it's the best performance in a film filled with good ones.

And yet 'Out of the Furnace' never quite manages to be the important movie that it so desperately desires to be. It is engaging, yes, but whether its punches are pulled or simply poorly thrown, the film lands glancing blows when it was clearly aiming for knockout punches. In the end, it's a pretty good movie that should have been much better.

[2.5 out of 5]

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