“Out of the Furnace” is not the kind of movie that jumps on you. It’s a cinematic slow burn that grows on you. The film, set in the steel town of Braddock, Pa., is about the Baze brothers—Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck).
Russell, a steel mill worker, is the strong, silent type who pays his little brother’s gambling debts in secret. Rodney is a soldier who, after serving four tours of duty, has a lot of pent-up anger. Whereas Rodney explodes, Russell endures.
The film opens with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) on a date at a drive-in. At the slightest hint of irritation, he hits the poor woman, as well as a man who intervenes.
Russell’s first encounter with Harlan is ominous. Russell is in John Petty’s (Willem Dafoe) bar to talk about Rodney’s debts. When he overhears John arguing with Harlan, he interrupts them to protect John. Harlan is vexed. “Your mama teach you to barge in like that?” he says.
Russell responds, “You got a problem with me?” And Harlan counters, “I got a problem with everybody.” This menacing scene sets the tone of the movie and reinforces Harlan’s viciousness.
On the same night, Russell drives home drunk and kills two people in a car accident. He goes to prison, and by the time he gets out, life has changed irrevocably. Rodney has become an underground bare-knuckle fighter. Their father has died. Russell’s girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), has left him.
When Rodney disappears after a fight in DeGroat’s turf in the backwoods of New Jersey, Russell must find him. Inevitably, he will cross paths with DeGroat again.
Christian Bale as Anti-Bruce Wayne
It’s a joy to watch the subtlety of Christian Bale’s performance in this movie, especially on the heels of his loud character as a con man in “American Hustle” and his larger-than-life role as Batman in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy.
As incredibly gifted as he is, Bale couldn’t have played the quiet and vulnerable Russell Baze earlier in his career. The Christian Bale of “American Psycho” (2000) and “The Machinist” (2004) flaunted his talent and physical transformation (buff and gorgeous in the former and emaciated in the latter).
Bale’s Russell Baze is wiry, tattooed, with longish hair—he’s anti-Bruce Wayne. And when Russell seeks justice, he displays a visceral rage and grit you won’t find in a comic-book superhero like Batman. Quite simply, Bale has matured as an actor.
In one of his best scenes in “Out of the Furnace,” he tries to win back Lena. When she reveals she’s pregnant with her new boyfriend’s child, Russell is simultaneously devastated for himself and elated for Lena. It’s a heartbreaking moment.
Scott Cooper’s America
Scott Cooper highlights a slice of blue-collar America at the onset of the recent economic downturn. He depicts it vividly. The scenes of rolling hills and rustic houses are as beautiful as the abandoned buildings and derelict factories are haunting. The fight scenes are brutal.
Cooper, who directed the critically acclaimed film, “Crazy Heart” (2009), is a deliberate filmmaker. He’s ever patient in exploring Braddock and in building internal and external conflicts.
In this movie you will see one of Bale’s finest performances, as well as memorable acting by Affleck and Harrelson. The superb supporting cast includes Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard. This is only Cooper’s second film, but it cements his reputation as a talented filmmaker with a unique voice.