Another locally grown boy makes good with "Out of the Furnace," recently released on DVD. Writer-director Scott Cooper, who previously led Jeff Bridges to Oscar gold with "Crazy Heart," was born in very nearby Abingdon, Virginia. Here he mines a vein similar to that of "Winter's Bone" with a gloomy and gritty tale of family and personal vengeance in a world beyond the reach of civilized justice.
The opening immediately introduces us to the despicably vicious and unmerciful Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). He's a meth lord and underground bare knuckle fight orchestrator in the remote region of New Jersey. Completely unfettered, he does some very bad things anywhere and anytime he wants. On his opposite end is Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a hopeless mill worker looking after an bedridden father who pays the price for doing one unintentional yet very bad thing.
In between the two of them is Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck), Russell's aimless younger brother who keeps himself constantly indebted to and testing the patience of an amiable local gangster named John Petty (Willem Dafoe). He hassles Petty into arranging him a fight through DeGroat. Though he's survived four tours in Iraq, Rodney places himself into a harm's way from which there may be no escape leaving Russell to deal with the aftermath.
Though it starts quickly, the story slows down with unnecessary characters and broader and equally unnecessary story angles rather than tightly focusing on these four main individuals. It's a drawn out set up before the main story takes off. Still, it's never uninteresting with this high powered cast that also includes Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker and Zoe Saldana.
The performances are appropriately low key yet chilling, particularly with Harrelson, and paint a grim portrait of life on and beyond the border of society. Excellent makeup, especially with Harrelson's teeth and Affleck's beaten to a pulp face, adds to the authenticity of this world. This is a well-crafted violent drama that comes to a riveting and rough conclusion. Curiously though, an abrupt, darkly lit final shot fades in and out and weakens the impact of that conclusion. It's artfully intended yet confusing and will no doubt lead to discussion among viewers.