This is not a film to watch when you’re feeling down or frustrated with the world. Furnace takes a healthy heap of despair and then builds on it with shovels full of darkness. However, it is filled with powerful and believable performances set against a backdrop of a decaying steel town and the Iraq war. In an odd way it is reminiscent of The Deer Hunter, though taken from a very different main point of view and it is a very different story.
Leading the cast is Bale (American Hustle) who honestly surprised me. I haven’t seen a performance of his that I truly believed for a while. He was contained and honest throughout the story and I quickly and completely forgot it was him on screen. Likewise, Harrelson (Hunger Games, Now You See Me) managed to do something new and subtle even though he was playing a riff on a standard character he has specialized in. As catalyst, Affleck (Tower Heist, ParaNorman) helped drive the film forward with a slowly shattered presence that raised images of the best of Giovanni Ribisi (Heaven) and Ryan Gosling (Drive); he is so much more than his brother, even without the same chiseled looks and star presence.
In smaller, but important, roles Saldana (Colombiana, Star Trek Into Darkness) and DaFoe (The Grand Budapest Hotel, Antichrist)added a lot with very little screen time. Only Whitaker (The Butler, Pawn) and Shepard (August: Osage County, Mud) were really under-utilized given their talent. It did not weaken the film to diminish their presences, but it also provided them very little time to have their personas disappear into the story. Whitaker, in particular for me, became a little bit of a distraction.
This is director/co-writer Cooper’s (Crazy Heart) second feature behind the lens, and his hand with the actors is solid. Even given the mostly quiet, steady-energied sense, the story drives forward relentlessly. The structure, however, isn’t quite as solid. His first and last moments don’t match well. The effect is to leave you wondering what happened at the end of the film. While I think the answer becomes obvious in seconds, that final moment stumbles over the finish line rather than making a statement or bringing clear finality. Frankly, it hurts the film over all. Clearly Cooper has chops, but I would like to see his craft improve as a story teller. Don’t let that dissuade you from the film–the performances are still very much worth it, as is the rest of the picture. Just be in a strong place before you enter that world.