In the new modern film noir thriller “Out of the Furnace,” Christian Bale plays a man who just can’t seem to catch a break. As Russell Baze, a good-hearted Everyman who works hard in the same mill in which his father toiled, he lives a life that feels stuck in neutral as he now cares for his dad, who’s waiting to die while lying on a couch at home with an IV drip in his arm.
Russell also cares deeply about his brother named Rodney (Casey Affleck), a war vet traumatized by four tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rodney can’t stop drinking, fighting and gambling due to his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And one night, after a few too many beers himself, Russell gets behind the wheel for his trip home and winds up sideswiping a car and killing a mother and child, landing in prison as a result.
When he gets back out from behind bars after four years, he finds that his longtime girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) has given up, moved in with and had a baby with the town police chief (Forest Whitaker). And just when Russell doesn’t think things can get any worse, he finds that Rodney has racked up a gambling debt that’s too big to handle and is proposing desperate measures to settle up with local crime boss John Petty (Willem Dafoe).
Rodney offers to be a human punching bag in an underground fight club run by a vicious backwoods criminal named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), but even Petty thinks that Rodney is going too far. With this confluence of disastrous circumstances coming to a head, Russell digs deep into his Catholic faith for the strength to save the day.
It may sound like a hopeless downer, but “Furnace” works as a gritty modern noir set in the rarely seen world of the small-town Northeast, with well-written and acted characters making it deeply affecting. Bale makes Russell particularly three-dimensional, as he struggles to keep his dignity and faith alive in brief yet touching moments of him at Mass both behind bars in prison and the bars of his own regular life in the dying real-life steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, Affleck is a boiling caldron of emotions and frustration with the limited options afforded him after he risked his life in numerous tours of duty. And Harrelson has said that DeGroat was such a horrendous person that he was the one character in his lengthy career that he was most eager to shake off.
Indeed, DeGroat occupies the flip side of the moral and behavioral spectrum from Bale’s Russell. Harrelson has made a career of playing both lovable nut jobs and diabolical psychopaths, taking the portrayal of evil to controversial new heights in “Natural Born Killers” in 1994. Now, nearly 20 years later, he’s outdone himself once again, making DeGroat, a meth-dealing operator of a fight club that makes Brad Pitt’s underground endeavors in the 1999 cult classic look like schoolyard mischief.
But “Out of the Furnace,” which hits theaters in limited release today before expanding nationally throughout December, is not just another simpleminded exercise in gutbucket brutality. Rather, it’s the second film by writer-director Scott Cooper, who directed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar in his filmmaking debut “Crazy Heart” in 2009.
Cooper came from a town like Braddock and knows how to get under the skin and into the hearts of the Baze brothers, and by extension, the lives of millions who have suffered from the Great Recession and its aftermath. In speaking about the film at a press event, he said that he knows most people in a town like Braddock would lean on their faith to get them through intense hardships, and that’s a positive thing to see in a film.
“Furnace” is violent and at times hard to watch, but it is not exploiting its harsh scenarios or asking the audience to cheer along. It also has a lot of foul language, particuarly F-words from the angry and frustrated Rodney and the monster that is Harlan. But it offers plenty to chew on for discerning adult viewers of crime dramas and connoisseurs of Southern Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor.
There may not be much beauty or holiday joy in “Out of the Furnace,” but one would be hard-pressed to say there is no meaning.