Film Review: Out of the Furnace

Brothers face bleak futures in a blue-collar town in a grim, despairing drama.

It's a cold world in Out of the Furnace, a downbeat story about blue-collar life in the Rust Belt. Director Scott Cooper's follow-up to the country-music saga Crazy Heart, the film follows two hard-luck brothers on a downward spiral marked by drugs, murder and bare-knuckle boxing. A strong cast and some prominent producers will grab critical attention, but this is basically a genre picture with ambitions—and one that doesn't deliver all that it promises.

Like Braddock, Pennsylvania, the city where they live, the Baze brothers have hit bad times. With his diseased father dying slowly in his living room, Russell (Christian Bale) slaves away in a steel mill. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq war veteran suffering from PTSD, builds up debts to small-time mobster John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Rodney turns to illegal street fights to pay off Petty, only to get into more trouble by refusing to throw his bouts.

When he is jailed after a drunk-driving arrest, Russell loses his girlfriend Lena (Zoë Saldana), who takes up instead with local sheriff Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). The bad news keeps piling up. Rodney disappears after traveling with Petty to a fight in New Jersey. Wesley threatens to arrest Russell when he and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) try to investigate.

Russell suspects Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a drug dealer first seen brutalizing his date and a bystander at a drive-in theatre. But police have been unable to catch Harlan, forcing Russell to come up with his own plan to defeat the dealer.

The script by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby sympathizes with its characters, whether disaffected druggies, surly rednecks, browbeaten girlfriends or unhinged vets. The writers more often than not get the details right about the story's dead-end jobs, clueless cops, prison gangs, muscle cars, dank row houses and cheap beer.

Cooper also draws connections with The Deer Hunter, exploring that film's themes of loyalty and patriotism while updating its settings and characters. So why does Out of the Furnace feel like such a bummer? Maybe it's Cooper's insistence that his movie is high art, and not a retread of scores of revenge dramas stretching back over the decades.

Take a hunting scene in which Russell stalks a deer, an echo of one Robert De Niro played in The Deer Hunter. Here Cooper intercuts Russell's noble sportsmanship with Rodney's brutal, no-holds-barred beating of an anonymous opponent. Juxtaposing the scenes doesn't improve them, it just draws attention to clunky technique.

Cooper also tends to drag out scenes, staging the characters close to each other as if to suggest that something serious is going to happen any minute. But tension keeps leaking out of the movie, despite an insistent score than includes contributions from Pearl Jam.

The actors approach their roles doggedly, with Bale perfecting Russell's glowering rage and Affleck pushing past Rodney's maudlin background. Harrelson gets the most flamboyant part as a self-medicating drug kingpin and killer, evoking at one point film noir mainstay Robert Mitchum. Back in the day, a studio like RKO would have wrapped this story up in a tidy 90 minutes, and without Cooper's lugubrious preaching. And Mitchum wouldn't have had to overact either.