At first glance, the title of this film may conjure images of yet one more return of the burnt and disfigured boogeyman Freddy Krueger, rising from the depths of the boiler room where angry parents chased him all those decades ago in order to vanquish their nightmare on Elm Street. (Or is it just me?) At any rate, strike that image: The furnace referenced in the title belongs to the steel mill in Braddock, Pa. – one of many that belched smoke into the skies of the towns throughout America’s Rust Belt, leaving a permanent fog of gray soot in the atmosphere that grows ever more bleak as the mills and factories continue to downsize and close, leaving the region’s workers as hopeless as the landscape. With its settings and themes, the film that Out of the Furnace calls to mind more than any other is The Deer Hunter.
Like his father before him, Russell (Bale) goes to work every day at Braddock’s mill. His brother Rodney (Affleck), however, chooses one of the few paths out of this cycle by joining the Army, and, as Out of the Furnace opens, Rodney is about to head back for his fourth tour of duty due to the military’s unrelenting stop-loss program. There’s a pinched and haunted look on Rodney’s face that speaks volumes about what he’s seen and done and now struggles to live with. There’s a sense of desperation about him that leads him to gamble at the OTB parlor with doomed money borrowed from the local loan shark (Dafoe), and later seek thrills and punishment in the underground sport of bare-knuckle boxing. Meanwhile a vehicular accident results in Russell doing time in the penitentiary for manslaughter. He’s in there long enough for his girlfriend (Saldana) to have abandoned him for the local sheriff (Whitaker) and for Rodney to have returned from Iraq.
Back at the steel mill after his stint in jail, Russell tries to rebuild his life. When brother Rodney goes missing after a bare-knuckle fight in the backwoods of neighboring New Jersey, Russell and his uncle (Shepard) go after the thugs and their leader, Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson). Harlan is one of the nastiest characters Harrelson has ever played. (On a talk show recently, Harrelson described the character’s lack of redeeming qualities by saying, “He sometimes brushes his teeth.”) These three central characters – Russell, Rodney, and Harlan – are memorably etched by the actors, and as a filmmaker, Scott Cooper’s greatest talent appears to be working with actors. His debut film Crazy Heart earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar; his second film, Out of the Furnace, is most notable for the terrific performances on display. Yet, the screenplay, which was originally written by Brad Ingelsby and rewritten by Cooper, is fairly predictable and rote. Too many of the film’s supporting characters suffer from underwritten roles. Yet Out of the Furnace brims with atmosphere and Bale, Affleck, and Harrelson deliver some of their finest acting work. Smokestack lightning this film is not, but Out of the Furnace nevertheless provides a solid whiff.