Rooted in gritty nostalgia of 1970s cinema, “Out of the Furnace” trudges the trenches of survival in a modern-day destitute Pittsburgh suburb.
With close resemblance in location and tone to the Oscar-winning classic “The Deer Hunter,” “Out of the Furnace,” written and directed by Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) begins as an exploration of hardships: one of struggling to survive in a mill-town on the verge of collapse and the other a psychological struggle to survive as a war veteran with little at home for grounding. The post-war psychology of “The Deer Hunter” takes a middling turn mid-way as “Out of the Furnace” turns into a run-of-the-mill remorseless revenge flick.
Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck) are brothers cut of the same cloth, but have taken opposite turns in their lives. Russell has his life in order. He’s settled down with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) and diligently does his shifts at the mill. Rodney is a lost cause. He can’t keep a relationship or pay his debts, which Russell continues to pay. He’s addicted to drinking, fighting and gambling and his experiences in war have left him wanting a more exciting and prosperous life than working at the mill. When an unfortunate accident lands Russell in jail, Rodney is left to his own devices. To prove he is more successful than anyone in his family, he enlists in street fighting competitions, but when he takes on Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a ferocious New Jersey kingpin, Rodney enters another war far more dangerous and unpredictable. When Harlan crosses Rodney, the once-composed do-gooder Russell violently takes matters into his own hands.
“Out of the Furnace” works as either a psychological exploration of two brothers struggling to survive in uncertain economic times or as a classic Donald Westlake-like revenge tale, but the overlap doesn’t work as well as it should. The two parts, if separated completely, are really well done. But the revenge portion of the film renders the character arcs moot rather than rising to any purpose, endangering the picture as just frivolous in the end.
Pittsburgh is given a bleak transformation. The nearby mill towns are destitute, the roving cast of characters just as depleted. It’s an effective style to show the drastic effects of a down economy and effectively compliments the gritty struggle between Russell and Rodney. The street fighting scenes are brutal and well done, but it’s the intimate conflict between Russell and Rodney that is the most explosive. The action moves from Pittsburgh up to DeGroat’s hideout in beautiful Ramapo, NJ, which is made to look like a backwoods hellhole, which in reality most certainly is not.
The three leads provide transformative, extraordinary performances. Bale impresses once again by slipping into pathos, a character trait he seems quite attracted to. As Russell, Bale plays with ideas of man who occasionally remembers he was the life of the party before slipping into a mundane adulthood. He’s part rowdy, part bearer of a crushed soul. He’s a man afraid of commitment with Lena but unequivocally protective of his brother. When Russell reaches his breaking point, Bale effortlessly makes the transition believable and plausible. Bale frequents these darker roles and Russell exemplifies his brilliant restraint.
Woody Harrelson is especially noteworthy here and plays scary incredibly well as Harlan DeGroat. Harrelson immediately sets the stage during the film’s opening scene as he spins a drive-in movie date into a cruel and violent event. His performance as a heartless maniac has a Pavlovian effect, creating incredible tension whenever he appears. You’ve never seen Woody Harrelson quite like this before.
Casey Affleck again proves he is a consummate actor. Rodney is like Russell’s shadow, a figment of the composed and hardworking mill worker that has detached to run amok. Affleck is squirmy and resilient as Rodney. It’s one of his best performances because, like his Robert Ford in “The Assassination of Jesse James,” he allows the audience to sympathize knowing full-well that Rodney’s pipe dream to get out of the furnace is also his death sentence.
“Out of the Furnace” has a premium supporting cast. Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard and Zoe Saldana all have brief appearances but add tremendous weight to the picture.
A potboiler with three incredible performances by Bale, Affleck and Harrelson, “Out of the Furnace” is a film with many superb parts that falls slightly short of making a cohesive whole.
Relativity Media. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 1 hour and 46 minutes.