An ex-con haunted by one mistake he may never be able to leave behind. His deeply indebted younger brother, a back alley boxer and troubled military vet that fights Peter to pay Paul. A dangerous kingpin whose fiefdom of crime extends deep into the roots of a working class community hit by hard times. Put these men of desperate living in the mix with one another, and you’ve got the recipe for a powder keg of bad blood and worse choices just waiting to go off.
You’ll also get something like Out of the Furnace, “like” being the operative word here because these sorts of movies about family bonds being tested by locally flavored crime are something of a subgenre. Stripped of its specific sense of time and place, Out of the Furnace contains the same basic ingredients of a dozen other “lone-man-out-to-protect-family-member-in-bed-with-the-wrong-people” movies that can often best be described as Wahlberg-ian. Having Oscar-winner Christian Bale in the lead and surrounding him with a funky bunch of venerated character actors is what gives Out of the Furnace its prestige drama chassis, which, combined with the film’s awards-season release schedule, gives the impression that director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) is looking to add a little extra soul and brains to a story-type that’s usually all muscle.
Sure enough, the slow burning engine that drives Out of the Furnace is one of a more methodical, thoughtful design than more action-heavy vehicles that share its general blueprint. It’s a film where violence is more often considered and threatened than actually enacted, and the most startling instance of it is entirely accidental. People take precedence over plot here; from the opening shot onward, Cooper uses the camera to box his characters in whenever possible, pounding them relentlessly with one hardship after another. It’s when they’re finally let out that things tend to get their ugliest.
Bale stars as Russell Baze, a born and bred clock-puncher working one of the few remaining mills still open in the rust belt borough of Braddock, Pennsylvania. An already harsh economic environment is exacerbated by the 2008 financial collapse that forms the film’s backdrop, though it’s brought to the foreground frequently by shots of oxidized industrial structures, which litter the region like bones in an elephant graveyard. Limited choice in blue collar work means that making a living presents a health hazard, whether you’re huffing cancerous mill fumes until cheaper imports lead to a plant closure, or exporting yourself overseas to fight in Iraq, like Russell’s brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) often has to. Even the best illicit work is being farmed out, as the bookie Rodney gets in deep with (Willem Dafoe) back home is himself in the red with the vicious Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a wild-eyed tribal lord of vice and underground fighting, who hides deep in the mountains of New Jersey.
Of the three leads, only Harrelson is working entirely within an established comfort zone. The charisma-less, but abundantly vile DeGroat is the kind of underworld heavy whose defining features are small affects, and the measure of his cruelty. His existence fouls anything and everything decent it crosses, whether by putting the relationship between the Baze brothers at risk when Rodney chooses to fight for him, or by dragging the film’s eerily tranquil opening scene down into the dirt by violently force-feeding a women who defies him. Harrelson is intimidating as ever playing this kind of part, but it’s only in rare moments that a flicker of something human registers in the feral force of nature that is DeGroat.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Bale’s Russell, a living saint that Out of the Furnace spends most of its runtime hammering into shape. The film’s pacing is set to a stopwatch counting down the ten or so minutes of screen time until Russell is once more the victim of misfortune, as his modest, but contented living is gradually eroded in a Job-like fashion. Taking the loss of loved ones and lost years to a prison sentence in superhuman stride, Russell’s moral tipping point eventually becomes the endangerment of Rodney by DeGroat, but that speaks less to the strength of his bond with his brother, and more to just how little the film has left him with he starts walking down the warpath.
Bale’s powerful performance saves Russell from devolving into the caricature of unflappable decency that Out of the Furnace threatens him with. The energy and physicality that made him a blockbuster movie star is on complete lockdown here, replaced with a restraint and stillness that never cracks. Russell is a walking wound that chooses to stay raw instead of scar, and the unending punishment he bounces back from, over and over again, would be borderline comic, if it weren’t always so painful to watch. Bale’s quietude belies an emotional complexity that few other actors can imitate, let alone own the way he does, and it’s the sole reason Out of the Furnace can turn the extensive foundation laying of its first two acts into anything but a gruelling slog,
It’s a top-form performance deserving of a story and script equally as nuanced. Affleck, while well-suited to playing the half of Rodney that’s a soft-spoken screw up, is out of his depth when trying to convey the horror of PTSD through lots of foot stamping and chest beating. When the shaggy dog narrative of Russell’s spiritual reckoning does finally come to a head, it’s due to a decision by DeGroat that proves the only smarts he’s got on him are in his phone. And for a film as oftentimes misanthropic as Out of the Furnace can be, Cooper strangely chooses not to end on the chilling final breath that seems to put a period on the film’s existential thesis. Instead, things run 30 seconds too long to allow for a moment of forced musical uplift, offering the viewer a treacle-tinged mint to wash the taste of grit and blood out of their mouth.
If it had something more to say about the economic and moral misery it so thoroughly realizes, Out of the Furnace could have been one of the year’s standout American dramas, but it spends too much time establishing a worldview instead of actually exploring one. Bale is at his devastating best, making for the film’s saving grace, but also its greatest liability. He earns his spotlight at every turn, while in the process shining a separate light on the rest of Out of the Furnace that can’t keep up with him.
A beautiful corpse of a film, Out of the Furnace is brilliantly led by Bale, but coldly executed to the point of lifelessness.