The drippy and dank Pennsylvania hill country in Out of the Furnace festers with the kind moldy and morose sense of decay that automatically springs to mind images of a lost America, a battered working class, post-war loneliness. Perhaps that’s because Michael Cimino already appropriated this landscape, with its verdant rolling hills and deer-filled forest interrupted by hell-spewing black steel plants, in The Deer Hunter (1978). In this new film we return both to the terrain and the themes of that classic movie, impoverished, everyman America rattled by war. We are confronted and troubled by the splintered psyche of a war vet. Our characters’ existential unrest leads them into a criminal netherworld that draws the human spirit to the edge of a psychic abyss. Out of the Furnace if a film that smolders and spits, even if it never quite bursts into full flame.
Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, and when we meet him, he appears a hard-working and contented man. He sweats at the local steel plant, tends to his dying father, and has a beautiful woman to spoon with after a long day. His proletarian peace is only unsettled by his runty younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck) who we meet at an Off Track Betting facility where he has just lost a local bookie’s money on a bad horse tip. He’s the kind of guy who’s tethered to trouble. And its Rodney’s impetuous decision making that leads Russell down a string of events that end in a drunk driving accident, a dead child, and Russell serving jail time.
Accidents happen in Out of the Furnace as surely as the periodic rain fall. Even though his incarceration in a foreboding, castle-like penitentiary is miserable, Russell takes it in stride, joking with his brother during their visits. If the place is it eating him up, Russell internalizes it, stoically driving it down. While Russell is in jail, Rodney is shipped off to the Iraq war, where he suffers his own ordeal. And when the two are both freed, it is Rodney whose trauma bubbles on the surface. While Russell tries to get back into the normalcy of work, Rodney gets into a nickel and dime bareknuckle boxing ring, where he is paid to get beaten to a pulp. Rodney is supposed to throw his fights, but there is too much pride in him to not fight back. That only causes more trouble.
The jams drive Out of the Furnace’s plot forward, eventual steering the characters down deeper into the underworld of mountain thugs and drug dealers lorded over by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a nastier-than-nasty roughneck. There’s not much more than exaggerated menace to DeGroat, but Harrelson plays him well, snarling and flaring his nostrils while he sucks on a lollypop. We first meet him in the movie’s brutal open scene, when he beats a man to pulp at a movie drive-in (echos of Drive, and an open-ended implication of the audience resonate), and his presence looms over the film, foreshadowing the eventual arrival of more brutality.
Against this grim, reaper-suspense, director Scott Cooper stays tight to Russell’s experience, a man who is constantly trying to reign in a simple life that is damned by circumstances to be forever untied. He loses his girl while at prison, and his brother keeps driving him into worlds he wishes he could ignore. But while Bale’s character is our noble hero, it’s Affleck’s Rodney who is the more interesting character, bereft with a kind of puppy dog toughness, and bearing a dejection that elicits an empathy for his broken tenderness. Rodney’s dejection is never as weighty or existential as his parallel from The Deer Hunter (Christopher Walken’s Nick), but it is still one of the most affecting things about this movie.
It feels unfair to draw too many comparisons between Out of the Furnace and The Deer Hunter, but the movie literally begs for them. There’s even a scene when Rodney goes deer hunting, and just like Robert De Niro’s post-war Michael who can’t bring himself to take the noble hunter’s “one shot” at a sitting still buck, Bale’s character is transfixed, and rendered impotent by the sight of his vulnerable prey. Moments later, Rodney’s uncle has taken a buck, and the hunting scene resolves in a rather ham-fisted juxtaposition of the slain deer and his brother being beaten in a bare knuckle match. It’s this artlessness, the lack of finesse, and the reliance on visceral brutality that inhibit Cooper’s film from transcending the feeling of a sheer, reactive shock and into a deeper kind of emotional involvement.
Out of the Furnace, for all its admirable attempts at rethinking our post-Iraq, post-financial collapse America through the lens of Cimino’s Western Pennsylvania, doesn’t establish the same warmth of personality or textual richness of daily life that allowed The Deer Hunter to work its expansive dramatic magic. Characters and situations read like types – the dying father; the beleaguered older brother; the beautiful lost lover; the impotent police force; the bullish, unstoppable brute who embodies sheer will to power; the haggard suffering of war, prison and poverty. And Cooper seems keen to strip sentiment and nostalgia from his depiction of this world. The film’s emotional thrust is rooted in primal, reflexive urges, climaxing in a thirst for revenge that cannot be quelled. It’s a nail-biting, if dramatically unsatisfying finish.
There is, however, something affecting about this world, and aspects of Out of the Furnace do resonate. The setting, the town of Bradford, PA, is a real place, and the suffering of the working class America; of floundering, mentally trouble vets; and communities caught in a post-apocalyptic economic meltdown is real. These are the textures that power Out of the Furnace’s otherwise rather rudimentary story, and they conjure flashes of real feeling not easily shaken.