With its chiaroscuro lighting, bleak worldview, and poverty-stricken blue collar town setting, Out of the Furnace isn’t anyone’s idea of a crowd pleaser. Moreover, the revenge angle at its center is something we’ve seen plenty of times before. But this brooding, methodically-paced, and often tough-to-watch drama is always engrossing and is blessed with a trio of devastating performances from Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson.
Bale plays Russell Baze, a dedicated steel worker who has lived his entire life in North Braddock, a blue-collar town in Pennsylvania. Russell lives in a modest house with his dying father and younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq veteran suffering from PTSD. After Rodney strikes a gambling habit, Russell makes a deal with his brother’s loan shark (Willem Dafoe) to help settle things. However, before he can do so, a terrible accident lands him in prison.
When he gets out a few years later, things have taken a turn for the worse. His father has passed away, their house is decrepit, and his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) has left him for a local cop (Forest Whitaker). Worst of all, the severely disturbed Rodney has taken up bare-knuckle boxing to pay off his ever-increasing debts. When Rodney goes missing after getting tangled up with a psychopathic gangster Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), Russell, who has now lost next to everything he loves, sets out to rescue the one constant in his life.
Writer-director Scott Cooper, who made his mark in 2009 with the stirring musical-drama Crazy Heart, builds on his promise with a movie that is even darker, emotionally raw, and moving than his debut feature. Although it’s easy to misconstrue Out of the Furnace to be a conventional revenge drama, you have to look beneath the surface. Cooper, who co-wrote the film with Brad Ingelsby, is merely using conventions as a shell to make a statement on the state of the American working man in the post-recession world.
Like Michael Cimino’s Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter, a film that’s an obvious inspiration, Cooper uses the town of North Braddock and the story of the Baze brothers as a microcosm for all the working-class communities in this country. Cooper understands their plight – being desperate, jobless, and forced into a corner – and he wants us to sympathize with them. And he succeeds by eliciting terrific performances from his talented cast.
Bale, who continues to amaze with the level of dedication he brings to every character he plays, is utterly heartbreaking as an honest man who has is being continuously beaten down and roughed up through no fault of his own. All he cares for in this world is the safety of his young brother. When that too ends up in jeopardy, he is put in a situation that can have no pleasant outcome.
Affleck is equally impressive as the disturbed Rodney – a man who has had so much psychological pain inflicted on him that brutalizing his body seems to be the only way out. And Harrelson, whose character represents all the evil and misdeeds of this world, is effectively terrifying. Out of the Furnace isn’t an easy pill to swallow and it may not be entirely successful in balancing its message with its genre story. But it’s crafted with thoughtfulness, empathy, and showcases some of the year’s best ensemble work. That alone makes it worth a watch.