Out Of The Furnace is blue collar, dirty realist filmmaking with a vengeance. The setting is post-industrial small town America in 2008 - in the midst of a new Depression. The shops are boarded up. There is rust on the building fronts and bridges. The only jobs available are in the local steel mill, itself rumoured to be closing down but still belching out smoke. The old men are riddled with disease from their time working there. Young men enlist in the army simply because it’s the only way to escape.
The plotting is conventional to the point of clunkiness. The strength of the film lies in its brooding mood and the committed performances by the leads.
This is yet another story about Cain and Abel-like brothers. Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck) react to their dead-end existences in very different ways. The former tries to abide by the rules. He works at the mill and tries to build a life for himself and his girlfriend (Zoe Saladana.) Rodney, by contrast, is a gambler and fighter who still carries the scars, both mental and physical, from his time as a solider in Iraq. The fates are against both of them.
Writer-director Scott Cooper (whose previous feature was the sweet-natured, country music based drama Crazy Heart) begins the film in brutal fashion with a scene at a drive-in movie theatre. For no particular reason, Harlan De Groat (Woody Harrelson) assaults his girlfriend. It’s an act of sadistic and random violence that seems to have been included simply to set the tone.
Bale excels in his role as downtrodden American everyman. He is not playing a wired, drug-addicted delinquent as he did in The Fighter or a flamboyant con man as he did in American Hustle. His character here is a decent and loyal man who tends his sickly father, looks out for his brother and yet still can’t stop his own life unravelling.
Casey Affleck is likewise impressive as the impulsive younger brother, forever getting into scrapes. In a bid to make money - and to stave off boredom - Rodney has taken up bare knuckle boxing.
The fights themselves are choreographed in very bloody but not entirely realistic fashion. Anyone who has seen Knuckle, Ian Palmer’s documentary about Irish bare knuckle boxing families, will know that when a bare fist hits against bone, the noise is nothing like the resounding thwacks we hear amplified by the sound editors in Hollywood fights.
It’s easy to see Cooper’s influences and borrowings. The idea of the boxer who won’t throw a fight rekindles memories of Robert Wise’s The Set-Up. The gritty naturalism here is in the vein of 60s and 70s Martin Ritt films like Norma Rae or The Molly Maguires. As in the more recent Winter’s Bone (2010) or even Deliverance, the mountain folk are portrayed as in-bred and vicious. At times, it seems as if we’ve been whisked back to the grimy, working-class Pennsylvania in which the early part of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter took place
There is certainly something strangely familiar about the scene in which Bale’s character, out hunting, comes face to face with a deer and yet cannot bring himself to shoot at it.
The idea of the “butterfly effect,” of a single action (in this case, drink driving) that has complex and tragic consequences, has likewise been explored in countless other recent films, among them Crash.
For all its posturing and contrivances, Out Of The Furnace still has an emotional kick. Cooper directs individual scenes with subtlety and lyricism. He also provides a platform for his actors to give performances that have a complexity that the plotting itself lacks.
The script gives little sense of what motivates Harrelson’s De Groat to behave with such unbridled malice other than that he’s a mountain man from a family of in-breds. (“It’s a whole other world up there,” we are told. “Generation after generation of these people have never come down off that mountain.”) Harrelson conveys his character’s aggression and cruelty in utterly chilling fashion. He is physically imposing and always intrudes on the personal space of anybody he encounters, pressing his face close to their’s. He wears a gigantic ring on his right hand that he uses to knock on a car window of one of his victims. There is always a grin on his face, even when he is committing the most heinous deeds.
Out Of The Furnace was produced by (among others) Leonardo DiCaprio and Ridley Scott. It has Oscar winners in bit parts. Forest Whitaker is in a thankless supporting role as the town cop, trying to rein in the locals when they seek revenge - and looking very sheepish about taking advantage of a man’s imprisonment to steal his girlfriend. The great American actor and playwright Sam Shepard plays a family friend whose main function seems to be that of the stoic witness. Willem Dafoe, usually a leading man, plays a sleazy, hard-up bar owner who wants to help the brothers but can’t help guiding them toward disaster.
The end of the film is strangely ritualistic. The setting may be pre-Obama America but, in the final reel, the main characters behave as if they’re in some Greek Tragedy in which everybody’s destiny is already pre-determined. Out Of The Furnace works well enough as a primal drama about a family helpless to stop itself being torn apart. There is a smouldering intensity here even at the moments when an overcooked plot make no sense at all.