One of the most alarming trends in Hollywood has been the elevation of what was once B-movie material to A-movie status. Super-hero flicks and monster movies are the most obvious genre examples, but brainless action pictures aren’t far behind. Twenty years ago “Out of the Furnace” would have been a low-budget Cannon release with some nonentity in the lead; now it’s a serious drama, Oscar bait even, starring Christian Bale. But its origin in pulp revenge melodrama can’t be obscured by references to rust-belt economic malaise and the nation’s unconscionable treatment of veterans added to the script by director Scott Cooper and Brad Ingelsby.
Bale headlines as Russell Baze, a hard-working, hard-drinking blue-collar guy in the deteriorating town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, where he’s one of the few men still employed at the soon-to-shutter steel mill, being driven to closure in 2008 by cheaper foreign imports. Along with his Uncle Red (Sam Shepard), he looks after his dying dad as best he can, but he’s also trying to reason with his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), who’s returned from three tours in Iraq angry and reckless, getting himself into hock with local bookie John Petty (Willem Dafoe), whom he repays by taking part in Petty’s bare-knuckle fights. But despite all his troubles Russell is nonetheless pretty content, not least because he has a good relationship with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana).
Fate intervenes, however, when driving home after drinking in Petty’s bar one night (and paying off Rodney’s tab there), Russell is involved in a DUI crash and sentenced to hard prison time. While he’s locked up his father dies, Rodney goes off for a fourth “stop-loss” tour in Iraq, and Lena takes up with Braddock sheriff Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). He eventually returns determined to live right, but finds that Rodney, now discharged, is worse off than ever, refusing to take a real job and falling deeper into the red. Desperate, Rodney coerces Petty into getting him a match in the more brutal matches staged by drug-kingpin Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) deep in New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains. DeGroat is one mean SOB, as we’ve already seen in a prologue in which he abuses a woman and then punches out a stranger who tries to defend her. The choice of fighting for such a fellow proves a very bad decision, resulting in Rodney’s disappearance. That sends Russell on a mission to find out what happened to him, and eventually to a confrontation with the vicious DeGroat.
If you reduce “Out of the Furnace” to its essence, it’s basically a revenge story about a regular guy willing to go to any lengths to secure justice for his kid brother. In earlier days the hero might have played by Dolph Lundgren or Jan-Michael Vincent, and the heavy by Joe Don Baker or someone of similar heft. The movie would have ended, no doubt, in an extended pugilistic exercise between the two men, which the hero would of course have won after being very nearly broken in two.
But this is a prestige effort, and so instead we get Bale and Harrelson, full-fledged stars who, in fact, give excellent performances under the expert direction of Scott Cooper (whose “Crazy Heart” won Jeff Bridges an Oscar)—Bale intense and understated, Harrelson wild-eyed and threatening, and a final confrontation that’s more regretful than cathartic. And they’re seconded by a superb supporting cast. The underrated Affleck is powerfully effective here as a troubled soul who’s been used and thrown away by his government; he’s also surprisingly credible as a bantam-weight brawler with unexpected reservoirs of strength. Shepard is his customarily stalwart, reticent self, Dafoe tones down his mannerisms to create a full, somewhat pitiable figure out of only a few scenes as the small-town hustler, and Whitaker brings dignity and strength to Braddock’s put-upon lawman. Saldana offers some welcome shading to the only female role—a typically underwritten one—and even Tom Bower manages to invest the relatively small part of Petty’s bartender with an unusual richness.
There’s plenty of character, too, in the locations. Braddock positively reeks of deterioration, a fitting symbol of the old American industrial base gone to seed, and the surrounding woods—in which Russell and Red go deer hunting in a sequence juxtaposed with Rodney’s ultimate fight (a montage that comes across as a trifle obvious but is nonetheless beautifully crafted—as well as raising memories of “The Deer Hunter”)—add a layer of mystery to the mix, especially as shot by Masanobu Takayanagi. The production design (Therese DePrez), art direction (Gary Kosko), set decoration (Merissa Lombardo) and costumes (Kurt & Bart) all contribute to the sense of authenticity, and composer Dickon Hinchliffe contributes a score as appropriately atmospheric as the one he produced for another tale of a depressed backwoods region, “Winter’s Bone.”
But despite all its virtues, “Out of the Furnace” is a film as much at war with itself as the Baze brothers are with their impulses. The trappings of serious commentary about contemporary socio-economic issues simply do not sit happily on a narrative arc reminiscent of seventies exploitation fare.