The movie industry is in the midst of its peak “recession stories” period, with any number of both independently made and Hollywood-funded films dealing in ways small and large with our country’s current economic lull. It has produced films both beautiful and artful (Mud, Short Term 12), and complete messes (The Internship). Out Of The Furnace falls squarely and perfectly in the former category. While couched in its marketing materials as a crime drama, what co-screenwriters Scott Cooper (who also directed) and Brad Inglesby present instead is an emotionally devastating glimpse into the troubling lengths that men will go to in order to survive in this day and age.
For one man, Russell Baze (Christian Bale, as sharp and poignant as ever), that involves trying to recover from a horrible car accident that resulted in the death of a small child and, because he had been drinking, a short jail stint. His brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), on the other hand, is both reeling from the effects of PTSD following a few stints in Iraq and trying to catch up with a local crime boss (a delightfully sleazed-up Willem Dafoe) to whom he owes a healthy sum of money. As the elder brother Russell makes efforts to piece his life back together — working at the soon-to-be closed steel mill and trying to reconcile with the girl who left him while he was locked up — Rodney takes to participating in illegal boxing matches.
It is through one of these fights that Rodney comes into contact with a shady and unctuous creature known as Harlan DeGroat. As played by Woody Harrelson, the character is all id — prone to outbursts of irrational anger and unfazed by leaving a healthy body count in his wake. To the point that, even after Rodney does his job of taking a dive at a big fight, Harlan has no issues with putting a bullet it in the young boxer’s head.
Where Cooper and Inglesby fly too far off course is laying far too much treacle on the hearts of the viewer, by way of unnecessary flashbacks to the two brothers as kids and throwing in a go nowhere subplot involving Russell and the new man in his ex’s life. And as Russell digs deeper into the criminal world that ended his younger brother’s life, the film starts hitting the rote dramatic beats that it only scraped up against until then.
What the filmmakers never reveal is a sense of pity for the plight of these characters, nor do they give off a tone of being above the blue collar citizens of this small Pennsylvania town. They take an almost documentarian style approach to capturing the spaces that these people inhabit, from dingy off-track betting parlors to the decrepit house that Harlan and his gang of junkies and dealers call home. The details are breathtakingly true to life and help keep the film from veering into what some have deemed “hicksploitation.” And it helps make the terrible decisions that the characters make throughout that much more potent and almost understandable. Every last good thing has been stripped from them, and they are reacting the only way they know how.