It’s just too tempting to say Out of the Furnace and into the fire to describe Scott Cooper’s slow burning thriller which sees two brothers in a downward spiral which sees their lives go from bad to very much worse. It’s a film that takes its time, perhaps too much time, to tell its story but we stay with it thanks to compelling performances from Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Woody Harrelson, three striking examples of modern American masculinity in a US haunted by the Iraq War, recession and hopelessness.
Bale and Affleck are brothers Russell and Rodney Baze in Braddock, a down-at-heel steel town where flannel t-shirts and Pearl Jam still seem to be de rigeur; things don’t seem to have moved on for a couple of decades. Russell works at Braddock’s steel mill which faces an uncertain future as foreign imports threaten its existence. Rodney has done three tours of duty in Iraq and is traumatised, angry and deep in gambling debts which he tries to pay off through bare-knuckle fighting. When Russell is imprisoned after a car crash, he misses his sickly father dying and his relationship with Lena (Zoe Saldana) disintegrates, leaving him a shell of a man.
Meanwhile Russell, Rodney has got even further into debt with local hood John Petty (Willem Dafoe) which leads him to fighting for bigger money in the up in the Jersey hills, home to some particularly nasty characters including Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) a sadistic crime lord with a taste for violence and crystal meth. When Rodney goes missing, Russell fears the worse and decides he must go into the hills to find his brother.
Slow and atmospheric, Cooper’s film is as much a look at the American Dream in tatters in the ‘Rust Belt’ of Pennsylvania as it is a tale of revenge. Russell’s quest drives the narrative in the final third of the film but it’s the lack of hope that stays with you, the post-industrial rot and pervading feeling of decline that infects everything.
In that way, it’s reminiscent of Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (which also starred Sam Shepherd incidentally) a mob caper set amid the post Katrina, credit-crunched ruins of New Orleans. Other obvious cinematic reference points are The Deer Hunter and Winter’s Bone.
For Christian Bale this is more American psyche than American Psycho, a portrait of the blue collar worker as a beaten man. He plays it with subtlety and simmering angst but his anger is nothing compared to Casey Affleck’s war veteran, whose boyish demeanour is offset by a quick temper and a wild stare. But it’s Woody Harrelson who very nearly steals the show from both of them, from his opening rampage at a drive-in movie to his constant leering menace and sudden, terrifyingly violent outbursts; his primal, amoral vitality is in stark and ironic contrast to Bale and Affleck’s conflicted, wounded ‘decent’ guys.
The problem with Out Of The Furnace is that it builds up to something it doesn’t quite deliver on. The set-up is for a revenge movie but the tone is too subdued, too meditative for it to really work in that way and the denouement is not the big dramatic finale we expect, from a Hollywood movie anyway. Still, there is something poetic about Baze and DeGroat’s final confrontation as the sun rises and the brutish DeGroat says “Listen to them birds” as the dawn chorus strikes up over the dying steel mill.