"Out of the Furnace" is a stunning example of how film can create characters and settings that are not only revelatory and impactful, but can be far removed from the more insular life experiences of the audience.
The year is 2008, the place Braddock, Pa. The milieu is post-industrial, Rust Belt America where once-prosperous towns are now corroded, seeming to collapse in on themselves, while those few remaining steel mills, on the brink of closing, barely support the blue-collar people who, for generations, have worked hard and managed to keep their heads barely above the Plimsoll line.
Up close it's clear that the denizens of Braddock are hardscrabble people, and director Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart") captures a chilling reality that is all but impossible to imagine.
Cooper accomplishes this existential, dead-end ambiance with a remarkable cast: Russell Baze (Christian Bale), as the good brother, working in a mill, intent on living a life of responsibility, accepting his role as the family anchor. His younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), coming home from four tours in Iraq, is wounded in ways that are not immediately visible, lost and haunted by experiences he is incapable of sharing. Russell, sensing his anguish, awkwardly tries to reach out to him, but to no avail.
And so this noir film begins in earnest as Rodney gambles with money he doesn't have and fights bare-knuckled in ad hoc matches for cash. With debts mounting, his desperation growing, he convinces a local bar owner/hustler, John Petty (Willem Dafoe), to arrange a fight, set up by a New Jersey meth dealer, Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).
He, along with his low-life crew, lives in the remote Ramapo Mountains, far from any interference from the law, or the constraints of civilization. Harlan, a psychopath who rages and burns and kills without remorse, is the antithesis of Russell. He lives a life that is so graphically evil and violent that it almost begs the audience to suspend its disbelief (so good is Harrelson's performance).
So Petty and Rodney drive five hours from Braddock into the mountains where the fight will take place. With each mile, as they draw closer, an ominous tone builds. They are both stepping into a world that telegraphs raw danger, creating a situation from which it may be impossible to extract themselves.
Here's the caveat: Know that this is a dark and gritty film. It possesses none of the feel-good patina of so many Hollywood films; rather, it is unremittingly grim, yet astonishingly good with a cast that lifts it to unexpected heights.
Bale is outstanding as the quiet and resilient brother. Affleck is the sinewy, wounded warrior who may never recover the boy who left for Iraq. Sam Shepard is the uncle who understands the two young men but is powerless to change the trajectory of events. Forest Whitaker portrays the local sheriff. And Zoe Saldana is Russell's girlfriend who has abandoned him while he was in prison. All superb.
There are moments in this film that are sublime, that are touching and harrowing and unexpected.
"Out of the Furnace" is more than a shallow journey into a working class reality. It achingly acknowledges that for countless Americans the economic downturn in our nation has not just been a truncation of salary, but represents losses that are immeasurable and wrenching.
One other thing: this film is beautifully photographed. Much of it is set in Braddock, and countless frames of the film are filled with smoke stacks that rise above ghost-like buildings, emitting plumes of white smoke, their grandeur and optimism now gone. And the clapboard houses that line the stark, treeless streets stand as testimony to lives that once were but are no longer, a truth that Russell grapples with as he senses that his own life is slowly and irretrievably slipping out of control.