Even though “Out of the Furnace” is one of the bleakest, vicious movies of the year, terrific performances from its nearly all-male cast make it worth your while.
Directed by Scott Cooper and written by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby, the film deals with brotherly love, friendship and revenge. Set in the steel town of North Braddock, PA, “Out of the Furnace” revolves around the Baze brothers—older brother, Russell (Christian Bale), and younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Russell works in the mill and makes a home with schoolteacher, Lena (Zoe Saldana). Along with his uncle (Sam Shepard), he looks after his sick father. It’s not much of a life, but it’s one in which he seems comfortable. On the other hand, Rodney is a mess. Rather than work in the mill, he joined the military and is a three-tour veteran of Iraq, set for a fourth tour. He seems lost and is full of rage. When he’s home on leave he plays the horses and drinks. One doesn’t want to give too much away, but suffice to say, things go horribly wrong for both brothers. Lives are turned upside down when, in an effort to pay off his debts, Rodney becomes involved in bare-knuckle fighting, first in Pennsylvania and then in the hills of New Jersey (many of us didn’t even know this part of New Jersey existed). The New Jersey fights are run by drug/fight kingpin Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), who’s violently introduced in the movie’s opening scene.
To some extent, this “taking care of one’s family”is a story that has been told before. What takes “Out of the Furnace” to a whole other realm is its acting. Affleck is outstanding as the vet with a wounded heart. He’s so good as this type of character that it’s easy to forget that he “can do funny,” as evidenced in his “Ocean’s 11” participation. Woody Harrelson is just amazing as the maniacal DeGroat. On paper, this is not a new role for him, but he always brings something to his performances. And Christian Bale? He is really the movie’s soul and he doesn’t disappoint. There’s something about his portrayal that has you rooting for him from the get-go. He imbues Russell with such empathy, it’s hard not to want him to succeed, and it really hurts when life seems to go against him.
“Out of the Furnace” is bolstered by a wonderful supporting cast. Zoe Saldana, practically the lone female in the film, is terrific as Lena, Russell’s no-nonsense girlfriend. Willem Dafoe is great as John Petty, the slightly sympathetic/slightly menacing bar owner/bookie. Tom Bower is very good as Petty’s good-hearted bartender and cohort. Finally, in addition to Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker, as the town sheriff, also turns in a low-key, but no less important performance.
There isn’t much, if any, sunshine in “Out of the Furnace.” Filth permeates the air…figuratively and literally. You’ll almost want to shower as soon as you leave the theatre. But that grittiness works and is abetted to a large degree by Dickon Hinchliffe’s banjo-driven score and some featured Pearl Jam songs.
“Out of the Furnace” lags a bit in the beginning, but ends up grabbing your attention and doesn’t let go until the final credits roll.