By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — We’re in the Rust Belt in the fateful year of 2008, a time and place where jobs are scarce, life is tough, towns are dying, and ends are bitter.
Out of the Furnace is a stark, brutal working-class drama about life in a recessionary steel town, where the difference between serving in the military and spending time in jail can seem startlingly slim.
Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, a hardworking employee of the local (and probably closing) steel mill in Braddock, Pa., where he also takes care of his terminally ill father with the help of his uncle, played by Sam Shepard.
Russell’s emotionally scarred younger brother, Rodney Jr., played by Casey Affleck, having returned home after serving four tours of duty in Iraq, gets involved in a crime ring in an effort to repay his considerable gambling debts.
When Russell lands in prison for drunk-driving negligence in a fatal car accident, his girlfriend, a schoolteacher played by Zoe Saldana, takes up with the sheriff, played by Forest Whitaker.
As for Rodney and the money he owes his bookie-mobster (Willem Dafoe), he has gotten involved in the illegal bare-knuckle fighting operation run by a malicious drug dealer (Woody Harrelson).
And taking a dive, something Rodney will certainly be called on to do, will not come naturally to him. Which is why Russell may need to call on his uncle for help in restoring an unbalanced balance.
Out of the Furnace comes from director Scott Cooper — the writer and director of the 2010 Oscar-earning Jeff Bridges starrer Crazy Heart — who co-wrote the script with Brad Ingelsby for a team of producers that includes Ridley Scott and Leonardo DiCaprio.
Cooper gives the melancholy melodrama a strong sense of place and a relentless deterministic pull: ineluctability trumps surprise at every turn. And he’s not afraid to be nasty or unpleasant.
He gets cohesive, impactful work from his principal cast, often scrutinizing them with telling closeups, especially the remarkable, chameleon-like Bale as a decent guy who descends into a lust for retribution.
And he’s capably supported by the absolutely terrifying Harrelson as a murderous psychopath who already lives there, and Affleck as a frustrated, embittered, and desperate brother.
Sometimes difficult to watch or stomach, the nonetheless compelling Out of the Furnace -– recalling The Deer Hunter in its style and setting and concerns — has nothing but impressively lived-in roles and convincing family relationships, even if the overarching screenplay juggles a few too many story lines to the point that the narrative focus suffers. That is, while the thoughtful screenplay touches on economic inequality and the unfair treatment of returning veterans, the overloaded plot distracts from the themes as much as it underscores them.
So we’ll scrape the rust from 2½ stars out of 4. The dark, cathartic, blue-collar revenge thriller Out of the Furnace creates some Baleful sparks on its way into the fire.