Certain movie genres are best not messed with.
Revenge melodramas and porn, for example. Get too artsy — try too hard to make them relevant and meaningful — and you deny the audience the crude thrills they’ve paid for.
“Out of the Furnace,” a crime drama from writer/director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me”), tries to make up for its clichéd yet wildly improbable plotting by pretending to be a character study.
It has a few solid moments, but finally runs aground on the rocks of its own lofty (yet ill defined) ambitions.
Russell Baze (Christian Bale) lives in a Pennsylvania factory town and labors in the local steel mill (the “furnace” of the title). He’s hard-working, decent and in love with the beautiful Lena (Zoe Saldana). He should be the subject of a Bruce Springsteen song.
His younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is a National Guardsman who has gone through four tours of duty in Iraq (the year is 2008). After all that, normal domestic life seems utterly empty. Rodney — a gambler usually in arrears with the loan sharks — has taken to participating in illegal bare-knuckle fights. He’s the sort who can take a savage beating for five minutes; then something clicks inside and he becomes a rabid monster.
The first half of “Out of the Furnace” is all about milieu and character. Russell tends to his dying dad and goes deer hunting with his uncle (Sam Shepard). He secretly pays off Rodney’s debts with the local small-town wise guy (Willem Dafoe).
He goes to prison for vehicular homicide when he crashes into another car after a night at the local bar. When he comes out, his girl Lena has taken up with a local cop (Forest Whitaker).
All this is very depressing. There are a couple of fine moments — particularly a tearful, rueful reunion between Russell and Lena during which she announces she’s pregnant by her new man — but the plot seems to have stalled in a swamp of blue-collar angst.
Finally, something happens. Little brother Rodney ends up in rural New Jersey participating in a slugfest run by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a sort of hillbilly master criminal. In the pre-credits opening sequence we see Harlan beat up his date at a drive-in movie, then beat up the suburban dad in the next car who tries to help her.
Harlan is the sort of evil maniac who gargles whisky and sweats meth crystals. Harrelson’s performance is just short of eye-rolling.
Anyway, Rodney goes to New Jersey to fight but never comes back.
With his father, his brother and his girl all gone, Russell decides it’s revenge time. He has nothing more to lose. And it looks like the world would be a much better place without this DeGroat character.
Bale is such a versatile actor that he almost — almost — sells this rural strum and drang. Soldana shows an emotional intensity new to her screen work.
Affleck has had his moments (“The Assassination of Jesse James…”, “Gone Baby Gone”) but this time around he’s all mumbling and methody grunting. Harrelson at least succeeds in being about the worst villain we’ve seen in 2013.
But “Out of the Furnace” fails to be anything more than an occasionally diverting distraction. Director Cooper has a good eye and he creates environments that feel lived in, but the story he tells feels cheap and manipulative, downbeat with no redemptive elements.
Plus, the ending is a cheat.