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'Out of the Furnace': Christian Bale seeks vengeance for Casey Affleck's death

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“Out of the Furnace” is marketed as a thriller but that’s not entirely correct. It’s a drama that’s paced like a thriller and eventually becomes one in the second half. It’s about working class people in an Appalachian town and the culture of crime that they live in, even if they don’t know it. It permeates their lives and they inevitably become a part of it.

Russell (Christian Bale) works a hard job at a steel mill in an industry town, a job where the physical toll is sending him to an early grave. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is an Iraq vet and suffers PTSD. He is repeatedly “stop-lossed” back into combat and when he’s home has a hard time finding work. Russell can get him a job at the mill but that’s the place that’s killing him and their father.

Rodney decides to fight for money for John (Willem Dafoe), a local bookie. It turns out John is in a lot of debt to Harlan (Woody Harrelson), a hillbilly gangster from an inbred community in the mountains. Harlan kills John and Rodney is collateral damage and is killed also. This plays out over the course of the first half of the movie and is the basis for a revenge narrative in the second half with Russell trying to track down and kill Harlan.

Movies are never about what they initially seem to be about. “Out of the Furnace” is about men who are gradually loosing everything until they have nothing left and begin acting out.

The movie is populated with actors like Bale, Affleck, Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, and Sam Shephard, good actors who only appear in movies they want to appear in; and the movie doesn’t give them the juicy parts they ordinarily would be attracted to. There must have been something special in this movie’s script to attract all that talent.

Consider the scene early on in a bar where on the TV we see, just for a moment, the democratic national convention. Barrack Obama is about to accept his nomination for president for the first time. We see how irrelevant this historic event is for these people. Their only chance for a better life is a president whose stance for change is a gesture only. The movie’s best quality is that it’s able to represent, on an emotional level, a certain kind of hopelessness in America – working class poor in declining industry towns.

Russell drives home drunk one night and accidently kills two people in a car accident. While he’s in prison his brother is sent back to Iraq, his father dies and his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) leaves him. When he gets out he finds the mill is closing because it’s cheaper to buy steel in China and ship it over. After all this Rodney is killed, and you can begin to see how someone like Russell might start acting violently.

The movie’s most notable performance comes from Woody Harrelson as the hillbilly Harlan. He’s a bad man in virtually every sense of the term. But at one time anyways, his disposition wasn’t entirely without hope. Initially we know him as a sociopathic thug only but we eventually start to see him as a more advanced version of what Russell is becoming. We don’t know what caused his downward spiral, but it has something to do with generations of hillbilly poverty and excessive use of alcohol and meth. This isn’t to say that he becomes a sympathetic character, just that there has been a serious social failure in his life.

In the second half, the movie becomes much more of a conventional thriller defined by manly men fighting to reclaim a rigid masculine identity. There’s still some good suspense but the movie looses a lot of steam here and is particularly disappointing after loosing a compelling drama to a by-the-numbers thriller.

The audience this movie is marketed to will probably find the second half more compelling and the first half as justification for the second. But the first half was more of the kind of story I was interested in watching.

*** (out of 4)

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David Jackson can be reached at davidjackson.calgaryexaminer@gmail.com.

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