If “The Deer Hunter” had starred Charles Bronson instead of Robert De Niro, and had ended not with a somber a cappella version of “God Bless America” but with an orgy of bloody vigilante justice, it might have looked something like “Out of the Furnace,” among the bleakest motion pictures to appear in American theaters since Bronson stopped making death wishes come true.
Scott Cooper’s sophomore effort behind the camera stars Christian Bale as Russell Baze, a working stiff from Braddock, Pa., a steel town a short barge ride down the Monongahela from Pittsburgh. Like De Niro in “The Deer Hunter,” Russell is the rugged, bearded type who assumes paternalistic responsibility for a war veteran with a nihilistic case of PTSD. Here, the troubled vet is his younger brother, Rodney, played by Casey Affleck in a variation of Christopher Walken’s “Deer Hunter” role, although this time it’s bare-knuckle boxing, not Russian roulette, that’s the self-destructive vice of choice.
Rodney’s in debt to seedy bar owner/fight promoter John Petty (the surprisingly benevolent Willem Dafoe) for ineptly playing the ponies on borrowed cash and stubbornly refusing to throw fixed fights. Petty’s in debt to backwoods ruffian Harlan DeGroat (the predictably crazy Woody Harrelson), partly because of Rodney’s inability to take a dive. Russell, meanwhile, is just trying to make an honest buck when he has one too many and lands in jail for vehicular homicide. If that’s not grim enough for you, Russell’s father dies while he’s in the slammer and his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) gets knocked up by the local police chief (Forest Whitaker), a no-nonsense cop who provides minimal help when Rodney runs afoul of DeGroat after a particularly brutal fight in the Ramapo Mountains of northern New Jersey.
Bale is at the top of his game, particularly in his handful of scenes with Saldana, but Affleck still looks rusty after the career stalling debacle of “I’m Still Here,” and Cooper’s rookie status as a director of action scenes is glaringly apparent in the final standoff, which could pass for unintentional comedy if it weren’t so gruesome.
Poor craftsmanship is forgivable, but the film’s portrayal of the Ramapough Mountain Indians (also known as the Ramapough Lenape Nation) as a cross between Neanderthals and hillbilly trash is not forgivable, and is even more disturbing for the sneaky way it attempts to disguise its racism.
As a New York Times article pointed out, De Groat is a prominent name in the Ramapough tribal council, and an underling of Harrelson’s character has the surname Van Dunk, the same as real life Ramapough Deer Clan Chief Percy Van Dunk. On several occasions characters refer to the Ramapoughs as so savage that even local police leave them alone, and there are numerous allusions to incest and other sordid behavior.
If the filmmakers had simply made the villain an anonymous thug from an unnamed portion of the United States somewhere east of Pittsburgh, they might have been guilty only of the pitfalls of genre conventions. But the vitriolic stereotypes on display in “Out of the Furnace” are comparable to the infinitely better made but just as ignorant “The Birth of a Nation.”
That movie was released in 1915.