Has Christian Bale done the world a favour by hanging up his bat wings? He is everywhere at the moment, making his comeback as a character actor and reminding us there’s much more to him than a latex mask and whispery growl. Hilarious in ‘American Hustle’ as an overweight conman with a combover, he is the best thing in this violent, cheesily macho American thriller from ‘Crazy Heart’ director Scott Cooper. Bale disappears into the role as an ordinary guy with everything against him, giving an authentic, white-knuckle performance. Shame about the rest of the film, which aims for Bruce Springsteen with its blue-collar big themes and stadium-rock emotion but ends up as a bandana-wearing cliché.
Bale is Russell, the strong, silent type and a guy who lives by the rules. Trouble is, the rules aren’t rules any more. The Pennsylvania steel factory where he works is closing – it’s cheaper to import from China. Russell looks after his dying dad (in scenes calculated to squeeze a few manly tears from guys in the audience) and keeps his soldier brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) out of trouble. After a road accident lands him in prison, Russell steps out of jail to find Rodney bare-knuckle boxing to pay off gambling debts. Enter lollipop-sucking hillbilly psychopath Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). In the real world there is a suicide epidemic among Iraq veterans; they come home, hurt themselves and sometimes the people they love the most. But that’s not romantic or poetic or like ‘The Deer Hunter’ (which this film’s director has surely seen a hundred times). So bare-knuckle boxing with hillbillies it is.
‘Out of the Furnace’ won’t win prizes for originality. Even the script knows how packed with clichés it is: ‘I’m meant to be scared of you because you’re sucking on a lollipop,’ Affleck says to Harrelson. The film would be a complete joke were it not for a few unpredictable, incredibly tense scenes and some undeniably powerful acting. Bale is as good as it gets, Harrelson shows us why he is Hollywood’s favourite psycho and Willem Dafoe is terrific as a sleazy drug dealer. The rest of the film is without a bat squeak of authenticity.