The story revolves around two brothers; Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney(Casey Affleck). The setting for the film is in Braddock, PA, a small rural town with a steel mill where the brother's dying father had worked and where Russell is now employed. Although working at the steel mill is not the most pleasant existence, Russell has other foundations in his life which make him happy including his girlfriend, Lena Warren (Zoe Saldana), his brother whom he is very close to, and his terminally ill father whom he spends his nights with. The brothers lost their mother some time back, and now their family foundation consists of their father and Uncle Red (Sam Shepard).
Rodney is a troubled veteran who served a few tours in Iraq, he spends his time gambling and getting into debt, he is tormented by his wartime memories and cannot seem to get his life back on track. During an argument one day, Russell tells Rodney that there is no shame in working for a living, Rodney reacts by showing a massive vertical scar along his abdomen and asks "Is this not work?" And begins to describe the horrors he saw in Iraq including dead babies.
Russell's world starts to unravel when he has one too many drinks one night and gets behind the wheel, a car suddenly backs out of a driveway and he slams into its rear with his truck. A family is in the car and everyone (including a young child) is unresponsive. Russell is sentenced to prison, although it is never indicated just how much time he serves. Apparently the sentence was long enough for his girlfriend to become romantically involved with the local sheriff, Wesley Barnes (Forest Whittaker), also Russell's father passes away while he is imprisoned. His brother goes off to serve another tour of duty in Iraq and returns even more troubled when he had been before.
Russell is released from prison and tries to pick up the pieces of his life, although he and his girlfriend still love each other deeply, there is a little obstacle standing in the way, that being an expected baby planted by the benevolent Sheriff Barnes.Meanwhile Rodney owes money to a local bookie named John Petty (Willem Dafoe) who runs his office out of the back room to the local bar. Although Petty is not threatening or menacing in any way, Rodney is determined to repay his loan and is earning his money by doing bareknuckle fighting, however he becomes frustrated by these "nickel and dime" fights, and convinces Petty to arrange a fight up in the New Jersey mountains where apparently he can earn more dough. Petty had very strong objections to any dealings with the mountain people whom he refers to as "N.J. mountain inbreds" possibly because Petty owes a large sum of money to the fearsome leader of the Deliverance tribe, Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) who, at the beginning of the movie, shoves a cigar into the throat of his date at the move drive-in, and then shoves her head into the dashboard, when a good samaritan comes to her aid, DeGroat beats the living crap out of him in the parking lot. When he is not beating the crap out of people DeGroat is shooting some sort of wonderful drug in between his toes.
So John Petty and Rodney Baze travel 5 1/2 hours up to the Ramapo mountains, and Rodney is introduced to DeGroat, after sizing Rodney up, DeGroat allows Rodney to fight in the ring. Rodney takes a severe beating and is ready to return to Braddock to work in the steel mill and put gambling and fighting behind him. Unfortunately, as Rodney and Petty are driving home, they are pulled over and surrounded by DeGroat and his mountain clan. Apparently Petty owes DeGroat money and since he does not have it on him, the penalty is a bullet in the head. Unfortunately Rodney is in the wrong place at the wrong time and does not return to Braddock either. When Russell finds out about his brother's fate, there is no holding him back, the mountain people protect DeGroat and refuse to cooperate with the authorities, but this will not deter or scare Russell, who has nothing else to lose in his life and is out for blood.
This movie was powerful and had good potential, unfortunately it fell short in some areas, for example, it was hoped that Russell and DeGroat would have a fist to fist showdown which never did occur. Russell loses his love interest and usually the hero is rewarded with winning the affection of the woman he loves. All in all, it was good to see Christian Bale play the role of the good guy, a role that he is growing into nicely. Forest Whitaker has either smoked and drank too much in his life or been yelling quite a bit, as his voice has gotten quite gravelly, he and Christian Bale's character have an interesting relationship because although there is a woman in between them, they are on the same side trying to bring Woody Harrelson's character to justice. There is not much else to add about this movie, for further discussion would spoil the ending, take it for what it's worth, it definitely is not slow moving.