Set on the frayed edged of modern day Rust Belt America, Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace, which opens area-wide on Friday, is a story about violence and retribution. It's a story that begins with almost perfect pacing and tone — crisp visual storytelling; efficient exposition; an explosive opening scene which avails us of Appalachian brutality vis-a-vis Woody Harrelson — but loses its footing in a gnarly third act. The film is rescued, ultimately, by the sturdy and often flash-less performances of its lead actors.
Russell and Rodney Baze (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) are working-class brothers in the hilly mill town of Braddock, Pa. Russell has followed in his father's footsteps, working a union job in the steel plant, while Rodney has distanced himself — literally — with military service in Iraq. Before a final stop-loss tour, Rodney is bumming around town, borrowing money from a local bookie (Willem Dafoe) and betting at off-track racing parlors.
One of the film's early successes is covering a great deal of narrative ground quickly. Within 30 minutes or so, the cast of characters is solidly established, conflicts are introduced and amped up, and the Bazes experience seismic emotional changes. Their father has died, and Russell has done prison time for an involuntary manslaughter charge, thereby losing his lover (Zoe Saldana, on the verge of or in the midst of crying for most of her screen time) to the local police chief (a growly Forest Whitaker). In addition, Rodney has returned from the war, full of confusion and rage.
The central conflict emerges hereafter, when the town of Braddock seems as depressed and hopeless as Rodney is. In order to pay his debts, he's been fighting in some local bare-knuckle bouts. He demands a bigger stage and a bigger payout; he lands in a backwoods New Jersey ring controlled by the hillbilly boss Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson). When things go awry, Russell Baze takes matters into his own hands.
As DeGroat, Harrelson is electric and unpredictable on screen. He sells drugs, does drugs, gets in everyone's face and operates under the assumption that he can and will kick the tar out of every man and beast on earth. His wild-eyed bad-guy shtick is balanced by Bale's quiet, macho performance as Russell. The way his lines just sort of dribble out of his mouth and the way his eyes communicate call to mind Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain.
Bale, Affleck, Harrelson, Whitaker and Sam Shepard (as a stoic uncle) all deliver knockout performances in their respective roles. And they're permitted to do really wonderful things on screen for the film's first two thirds. Near the end, though, the storytelling gets a little messy. There are a few more extended ambiguous nature shots and close-ups. You get the sense that Cooper wants us to meditate on the moral principles at play, almost as if he's trying to disrupt the natural momentum toward a climax.
That neo-noirish existentialism is fine, especially when coupled with the doting Rust Belt cinematography and stripped of flashbacks, surface-level camera tricks and general ham-handedness.
But without the performances to rudder the ship, this one drifts more toward "thinkpiece" than "character study" or "action thriller," between which two, for the most part, it successfully oscillates.