Out of the Furnace: AFI Fest Review

A solid, well-acted tale about how the bad steps in when jobs fall away in the Rust Belt.

Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck and Forest Whitaker star in Scott Cooper's drama.

The sad, gray, economically parched Rust Belt setting is familiar from numerous fine recent films — The Fighter, Warrior, Unstoppable, Prisoners— and another solid one joins the list with Out of the Furnace. Director/co-writer Scott Cooper's second feature shares a similar melancholy, end-of-the-line tone with his first, Crazy Heart, while examining another part of the country that would seem to offer no hope of a better life to its residents short of escape. This well-wrought, rather prosaic working-class drama about two brothers whose dwindling prospects tilt them toward the overlapping criminal worlds of drugs and bare-fisted boxing looks to ride its volatile cast and violent tendencies to moderate box-office results.

A startling opening scene serves notice that some nasty business lies ahead. After a hopped-up hillbilly played by Woody Harrelson at full tilt shoves a hot dog down the throat of his date at a drive-in movie (do they still have those in backwoods Pennsylvania?), he beats the absolute crap out of a gentleman who presumes to come to the distressed woman's assistance. After an entrance like this, audiences would cry foul if this psycho didn't dish out even more irrational violence later on. You can rest assured he delivers.

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Set in 2008 -- as evidenced by a TV clip of Ted Kennedy enthusing about Barack Obama at the Democratic convention -- the central focus of the script by Brad Ingelsby and the director is the downward-spiraling lives of the Baze brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck). While their dad is expiring from cancer, Russell works at a mill that doesn't figure to be around much longer, while Rodney accumulates gambling debts between multiple tours of duty in Iraq.

Things go from bad to worse when Russell does a stretch in prison for negligence in a fatal auto accident. By the time he gets out, his girl Lena (Zoe Saldana) has taken up with the sheriff (Forest Whitaker), while Rodney has begun trying to pay back what he owes to local bookie Petty (Willem Dafoe) by participating in illegal bare-knuckle fights that have all the savoriness of cockfighting contests.

The impresario of such events, which are staged in remote abandoned factories, is none other than Harrelson's Harlan DeGroat, the territory's most notorious and elusive drug producer, dealer and, never to be outdone, user. He does not take kindly to being crossed, nor does he appreciate it when Rodney forgets to throw a fight he's supposed to. When, in an early encounter, Russell asks Harlan if he has a problem with him, DeGroat replies, “I got a problem with everybody.”

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The dark and dangerous road this deterministic drama takes predictably leads to places so bad they're not on any map, and this is the type of literal-minded film that intercuts between two hunters stalking, shooting and dressing a deer and the deadly pursuit of a human being. Once at least a couple of important characters have had the bad luck to encounter Mr. DeGroat one too many times, it's quite clear that the missing second half of the titular proverb “Out of the furnace …” will be fulfilled.

DeGroat serves a function very close to the Kurtz character in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now as an embodiment of pure and irredeemable evil, the king of a jungle so far off any normal moral or geographic map that everyday law enforcement won't even venture there. It takes a loner to stalk the beast in his own territory, which is where the film ultimately travels.

But there is good character work along the way, even if it's more in the form of sketches than full-fledged portraits. Saldana's Lena is all bristling nerve endings and vibrantly available emotion. Affleck's four-tour Iraq vet is so accustomed to living on the edge and putting his life on the line that everything else seems boring. Owing money to DeGroat has made bookmaking far more perilous a profession for Dafoe's wizened veteran than he ever bargained for. Shepard offers gravitas as the young men's uncle who knew Braddock, Pennsylvania (where the film was made), when it was a thriving steel town rather than a depressing symbol of industrial and working class decay. Tom Bower projects the meek defeatedess of the go-along/get-along flunky. Whitaker actually has little to do other than to assert the parameters of his cop's jurisdiction and fruitlessly advise Russell not to take on DeGroat. In the meaty bad guy role, Harrelson entertainingly goes all the way, putting him way out there on the ledge with any of your favorite loonies, psychos and unhinged nutjobs; he's got something considerably more profane tattooed on his hands than Robert Mitchum did in The Night of the Hunter.

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Bale throws himself into his role earnestly and impressively. Russell sincerely wants to do the right thing—by his father, his brother, his girlfriend and his life. But the limitations, constraints and possibilities for being tripped up in his attempt to do so are considerable even without a threat like DeGroat lurking about; one look at the town and you know there's little hope, but Russell has assumed too many responsibilities to shirk them by leaving. In some things he can make a difference, in others there is probably nothing anyone could do.

Craft contributions combine with the vivid locations to create a strong sense of place.

Opens: Dec. 6 (Relativity Media)
Venue: AFI Film Festival
Production: Relativity Media, Appian Way, Scott Free
Cast: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Tom Bower, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard
Director: Scott Cooper
Screenwriters: Brad Ingelsby, Scott Cooper
Producers: Jennifer Davisson Killoran, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Kavanaugh, Ridley Scott, Michael Costigan
Executive producers: Tucker Tooley, Robbie Brenner, Jason Colbeck, Ron Burkle, Brooklyn Weaver, Riza Aziz, Joey McFarland, Christian Mercuri, Joe Gatta, Jeff G. Waxman
Director of photography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Production designer: Therese DePrez
Costume designers: Kurt & Bart
Editor: David Rosenbloom
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe

Rated R, 116 minutes