Out of the Furnace is titled after the historical novel Out of This Furnace, about steelworkers in Braddock, Pa., and the film undoubtedly gets its corrosive authenticity from that work. Yet the belching steel mills outside of Pittsburgh, however symbolic, are merely the background for this story of family bonds, and of how one brother is broken, and another nearly so, by a string of misfortunes, not the least of which is the recession, which makes hard times in Braddock even harder.
Russ Baze (Christian Bale) is a gentle millworker whose life is irrevocably changed when he is involved in an accident that sends him to jail. Russ’s volatile younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), has just returned from military duty in Iraq, and shortly after Russ is sent to prison, their widowed father dies. Left on his own, Rodney spirals downward into drinking and gambling. The film’s evocation of bad breaks and small joys is masterful, right down to the unobtrusive support of their uncle (Sam Shepard), who grows flowers, and especially, in Russ’ adoration of his girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana).
From these lives of quiet desperation, the film skips forward a few years, to Russ’ release from prison. Heartbroken by how his girlfriend has moved on, and moved in with a local police officer (Forrest Whitaker), he loses his last shred of hope when a turn of events prevents him from ever winning her back. And yet he manages to keep going, working out his demons with physical labor. Meanwhile Rodney has been earning gambling money by fighting in illegal bare-knuckle boxing matches, which no matter how savage do not seem to diminish any of his inchoate anger. In debt to a corrupt bookie (Willem Dafoe), Rodney pushes the bookie to get him a big-money match in the Ramapo Mountains. The bout is under the backwoods jurisdiction of a vicious meth dealer, Harlan (a memorably fiendish Woody Harrelson), whom even the lowlife bookie is loath to do business with.
Directed with acuity by Scott Cooper, Out of the Furnace has more in common with the gritty intensity of Winter’s Bone than it does with Cooper’s acclaimed debut, Crazy Heart. As with his debut (which earned Jeff Bridges a Best Actor Oscar), Cooper shows himself a true actors’ director, and the performances from the stellar cast are haunting in their sincerity, especially the depth of devotion between Russ and Rodney. Moments of tenderness are all the more anguished considering the harsh conditions they’re set against. Bale, as a man who has more strength of character than smarts, is more poignant than heroic, while Affleck creates another original and indelibly convincing character, as Rodney’s smoldering rage seems almost more than his slight physique can contain. Yet for a film about violence, it is not bloody per se, but more suspenseful in its atmosphere of dread and menace. Souls touch souls (beautifully conveyed by the entire cast), but whether for good or ill is what must play out. The fact that Harlan sees something of himself in Rodney—“you’re tough,” he tells him, “almost makes me want to get in there with you, just to see who walks out”—does not bode well for either of them.
Cooper is as gifted with a camera as he is with actors, and his visual imagery is subdued, surprising, and occasionally devastating, slipping out of the weariness and poverty of Braddock with soaring tracking shots of the forested mountains—or of a gaggle of schoolchildren meandering home.
As a storyteller, however, Cooper (who co-wrote the script) is less assured. Despite the tersely effective dialogue, the film’s primal conflict seems less than integral, perhaps because of a reliance on vigilante tropes that are overly familiar. Even so, Out of the Furnace is a searing experience, and will likely be remembered as such come Oscar time.