Out of the Furnace
Quality: ★★★ (out of four)
Director: Scott Cooper
Stars: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Woody Harrelson, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe
Rating: R for strong violence, language, drug content
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Theaters: Aksarben, Oakview, Village Pointe, Westroads, Majestic, Regal, Midtown, Bluffs 17, Twin Creek
* * *
“Out of the Furnace” is one of those movies that put a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach within the first 15 minutes, then takes its main characters on a trajectory that keeps you worrying about them and squirming over the decisions they're making. The sky just keeps getting darker.
Just how much you worry and squirm is a credit to the acting jobs done by Casey Affleck and Christian Bale as close-knit brothers who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in a blue-collar steel-mill town.
Ma died when the boys were young. Pa is flat on his back with a serious illness. Rodney (Affleck) is facing his fourth tour in Iraq. Russell (Bale) is sweating hard at the steel mill, paying his brother's bad gambling debts when he can. Snuggling in bed with his girl, Lena (Zoe Saldana), makes it all worth it.
To earn quick cash and keep the loan sharks at bay, Rodney takes to bare-knuckle fighting. He's scrappy, but his temper causes him to get in trouble with his bookie, John (Willem Dafoe), when he forgets to take a dive and wins the fight.
Things go from bad to worse when Russell lands in prison, his girl has moved in with a cop (Forest Whitaker), and Rodney is in worse shape than ever after that fourth tour.
Desperate to pay bad debts, Rodney begs John to book him a fight with a harder bunch of loan sharks and drug dealers led by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a vicious headcase. The opening scene of the movie, a nasty altercation at a drive-in movie, exists only to let us know who Harlan is.
By now you can smell where this might be going. Russell and his taciturn uncle, Rhett (Sam Shepard), will have to try to set things right for Rodney, and the cop who has Russell's ex-girl will have a role in how that plays out.
Director and co-screenwriter Scott Cooper shows some of the same savvy he did when making “Crazy Heart,” using minimal dialogue and showing rather than telling in the way he fills the frame. Things get a little too self-conscious here and there, as in a sequence that cuts between the two brothers as prey and predators. But the mood-setting atmospherics are great.
Better yet are a number of eloquent little moments of truth played impressively: Rodney blowing up at his brother about just how badly Iraq has messed with his head; Russell making a surprisingly moving pitch to get his girl back; Russell quietly burying the hatchet with the cop; Harlan proving once again in a neighborhood watering hole that he's a psycho to be feared.
“Out of the Furnace” wants to be about justice, both big picture and small. In the end it's a fairly pedestrian tale of vengeance and hard knocks, but played exceptionally well. Not all Cooper's big-name stars get the screen time their talents deserve. But if you're looking for some high-octane character work, intensely played, Bale, Affleck and Harrelson will give you your fill.