Out of the Furnace is a gritty, violent revenge drama set in the Pennsylvania steel town of Braddock, a movie that runs on a roller-coaster wave of emotions as did director Scott Cooper’s 2009 film, Crazy Heart, starring Jeff Bridges as an alcoholic country singer. Out of the Furnace has an entirely different blue collar, urban setting, but the same elements are in place - fierce decency against the odds, the uneasy balance between recklessness and responsibility, violence and bourbon whiskey.
It’s like a Bruce Springsteen song made into a movie, although these guys don’t quite go racing in the streets. But given how they rev their cars at each other, they could be tempted.
Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works at the local steel mill, as his elderly, ill father did before him. Pop is now confined to bed at home, and Russell keeps an eye on him. He keeps a keen eye too on his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a sensitive lad whose troubles began when the boys’ mother died years before.
Rodney is home between tours of duty in Iraq and has got himself a large gambling debt after losing at the horses. To pay back the money, he gets sucked into a local money-lending racket, which is in turn linked with a bare knuckle fighting business. It’s all part of a sinister empire run by the psychopathic drug lord, Harlan DeGroat who is played with particularly ugly aplomb by Woody Harrelson.
The brothers’ relationship - tender and explosive by turns – is at the heart of this captivating, if largely unsubtle movie. The scene where Rodney tells Russell about the horrors he has witnessed in Iraq is particularly moving. It certainly makes you think once again about how foreign wars have inevitable fall-out in small-town America, those neglected stories of men morally and mentally wrecked by war.
Ultimately Russell was dealt the better hand and he is planning a future with a local girl, Lena (Zoe Saldana.) But things don’t quite go right for him either, this year of 2008, as Edward Kennedy urges a vote for Obama on TV.
Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe and Forrest Whitaker all acquit themselves admirably in what is a very strong, if not wildly original film.