Few contemporary films are as world weary and fatalistic as Out of the Furnace. Downbeat characters drive around in battered station wagons, listening to gloomy ballads featuring a ubiquitous hoarse whisperer with a strung out guitar. In the small towns where much of the film takes place, there remains a pervasive feeling that their residents didn’t quite make it; the American Dream remains a distant memory here.
Russell Baze, played with earthy intensity by Christian Bale, is one of those people. He works at the local mill and looks after his dying father and troubled brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rodney is back home from yet another tour in Iraq with plenty of physical and psychological scars. He finds civilian life mundane, and tries to raise the stakes by dabbling in bets with the local shark John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Russell is in love with Lena (Zoe Saldana). They aren’t married, but he only has to pop the question. Cooper sketches all of these introductory scenes with a measured naturalism; these are real people, and they aren’t forced to express themselves, what they want, and who they are.
Tragedy strikes Russell when he gets involved in a drunk driving accident through no real fault of his own. As he bides his time in prison, trying to stay out of trouble, his father passes away, Lena leaves him, and Rodney goes on another tour of Iraq. It’s amazing how much depth Bale and Affleck find in their characters in the couple of scenes they share while Russell is in prison; one scene finds them expressing extremely different kinds of quiet desperation aimed at their circumstances.
After Russell gets out of prison, he goes back to the mill. Rodney, meanwhile, has found work as a fighter in a ring of illegal street fights around the town, run by Petty. The more he fights, the more confident he gets, and soon he wants to have a fight in a bigger league, one run by Harlan DeGroat, a small time gangster played with lip smacking relish by Woody Harrelson. DeGroat is a man driven by impulse and basic instinct, happy to push buttons and jar nerves. He’s not someone whose path you would want to cross, as Rodney finds out for himself. As you can guess, Russell and DeGroat eventually butt heads, and not in a male bonding sort of way.
Out of the Furnace is a film built on atmosphere. It channels the disappointment of the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis emotionally, instead of with the blunt literalism used in Killing Them Softly. The American Dream is a false ideal here that is brought into conversation between Russell and Rodney: Russell abides by it even after he gets out of prison, but Rodney thinks its a cheap joke after everything he gave his country. The sick joke that adds to this critique of the Dream is the fact that DeGroat seems to have made it by taking advantage of the vice of America.
Where the film succeeds then, is in providing a strong atmosphere and nuanced characters. Where it fails is where it takes them. The revenge that drives the third act of the film is not particularly interesting, nor is it particularly clever. Russell’s stoic nature resists Cooper’s attempts to catalyze him into a force of nature, bent on destroying DeGroat. Cooper inevitably loses focus along the way as he fills in the blanks of the by-the-numbers plot, which slows things down quite a bit. The film limps towards its inevitable conclusion, a stale aftertaste to a wonderful set-up.
Out of the Furnace sank without a trace from American theaters in 2013, a fate it doesn’t deserve considering the richness of its characters. It’s an interesting misfire because it deserves to be watched and admired; few films are quite as lived-in as this one. It carries an indie sensibility to its talented ensemble, but it simply doesn’t break out of its genre trappings enough.