That great wise man King Solomon once wrote, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Proverbs 14:12).

The point of the quote is that every man (or woman) – if left to himself, apart from God – will unwittingly follow a path that seems right and good and just, but leads to death, if not in this life, the next.

Yet the quote also holds true for societies.

Make no mistake about it: If you put a group of men together into a society, they’ll quickly devise their own system of right and wrong, justice and penalty – and the end thereof will inevitably be brutal. Historically, we see virtually every great society create rules and laws that don’t refrain brutality, but often give rise to it (see the Aztecs, Vikings, Rome, tribal societies, or to really get a grasp on the subject, read the novel “The Lord of the Flies”).

But something remarkable happened when Western civilization began striving to build a society on the principles of its common Christian faith: Virtues we today call “civilized” but were unknown to previous civilizations began to emerge. Fundamental human rights, compassion for the weak and poor, respect for the voice of the minority, property rights for the peasantry and more – though it took centuries to implement – can all trace their roots back to Western civilization’s effort to heed King Solomon’s voice.

Today, we take these virtues for granted, stand amazed that our forefathers weren’t more committed to them (i.e. allowing the existence of slavery), but we don’t realize how radical a departure these virtues were from the brutal, even barbaric virtues of the godless societies that preceded Western civilization.

But what happens when men get left alone again to make their own rules in whatever way they see fit? Oh, some “progressives” will call this eventuality “progress,” but the evidence to the contrary is broadcast in living color every evening on the TV news. You can watch “The Lord of the Flies” happen live now, thanks to journalists with cameras all over the world.

The star-studded new film in theaters “Out of the Furnace” similarly gives a picture of how the ways that “seemeth right unto a man” end up becoming “the ways of death.”

And despite the presence and solid input of actress Zoe Saldana, this is a film all about men, the varying rules they live by and the inherent (often misguided) honor that drives each one, even unto deadly confrontation.

First, there’s Rodney Baze (played very well by Casey Affleck), a traumatized, returned soldier who can’t seem to make any decisions right, but still refuses to just take a job from the local steel mill, believing he has to prove something first – a noble-sounding thought … that really just leads to death.

Then, there’s John Petty (played by Willem Defoe), a two-bit loan shark and hustler who still maintains his own, sympathetic brand of honor, which wants to do right by the very people he’s hustling. In the end, it leads to … well, death.

Other characters with their own rules for right and wrong, integrity and manliness are played by notable actors Forest Whitaker, Christian Bale, Sam Shepard and even, in a twisted way, by Woody Harrelson (told you it was a star-studded cast). There’s even an ugly scene at the beginning where an anonymous man confronts Harrelson’s sadistic Harlan DeGroat character over a question of honor. Guess how it ends? Not well.

But ultimately, “Out of the Furnace” is a tragic story about Bale’s Russell Baze, older brother to the ne’er-do-well Rodney Baze. Russell just wants to do right by their sick dad, his future wife and his brother. He’s a blue-collar good guy who wants to come home to a good woman and a cold beer and know his loved ones are OK.

But with DeGroat’s wickedness looming and Rodney about to fall into the Venus flytrap, Russell isn’t going to sit down to that beer any time soon.

The movie itself is filled with some magnificent performances. At the same time, it’s very slowly paced, dark, dingy and virtually never entertaining. It moves very predictably toward a revenge flick, but doesn’t have the campy wit or action-hero element to make that really work. By the time the film comes to its train-wreck conclusion, it feels more like the train just rusted and fell apart than actually exploded.

And don’t look for a redemptive or happy ending here. “Out of the Furnace” feels like a Shakespearean tragedy, where two brothers both believe they’re doing right, but the end thereof … well, you see where this is going.

“Out of the Furnace” just never adds up to the sum of its parts. It’s a good movie for the resume of Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, but not one that merits the price of a ticket.

Content advisory:

  • “Out of the Furnace” is rated R, in large part, because of the nearly 100 F-words that overwhelm its script, as well as another 60 or so profanities and obscenities.
  • The film has little sexuality and no nudity, limited to some kisses, a bit of cleavage, shirtless guys, a few lewd comments and some banter between a couple in bed (but nothing explicit is seen).
  • “Out of the Furnace” can be brutal and graphic in its violence, showing bare-knuckle fighting and the resulting bruises and bloodiness. Several people are shot and killed. A deer is skinned, and the blood and carcass are displayed graphically. A terrifying car accident is portrayed, but the worst of the carnage is not shown. Drug use is depicted.
  • The movie has no obvious occult content, but does contain two scenes in chapel/church settings where the preacher is directly reading Scripture. These scenes lend a touch of gravitas, but their connection to the film and the actors’ resulting actions is a bit vague.

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