Christian Bale hands out his own brand of justice in the revenge drama “Out of the Furnace,” but don’t expect Alfred or Commissioner Gordon to help out the former Dark Knight. Instead, the film features an all-star cast under the direction of Scott Cooper in a story about retribution, loss and broken spirits in the Rust Belt of America.
With the rapid intensity of a horse race, the film opens with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) pulling into a country drive-in theater. He asks his date (Dendrie Taylor) to remove her hot dog from the bun and shoves it down her throat. When an onlooker sees DeGroat’s boorish behavior, he sets out to remind him of what a gentleman is. Unfortunately, that act causes him to be beaten to a pulp, to the point where other men are scared to help the would-be hero.
However, the furnace in the title refers to the Carrie Furnace located in Braddock, Pennsylvania, where the Rust Belt serves more as a lead blanket, suffocating those who live there to the point where escape is rarely an option. It’s here that steel worker Russell Baze (Bale) solemnly toils away at the mill, while having a constant reminder that the place that pays his bills also left his father slowly and painfully dying of cancer. Russell’s girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) is cooking up another kind of heat for Russell in the hopes that he’ll make an honest woman out of her complete with bouncing baby Bazes.
Russell already has kid problems in the form of his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a soldier always looking for a quick score, but always ending up in debt to the local bookie and tavern owner John Petty (Willem Dafoe). When Russell tries to bail out Rodney from his latest loan, the night ends with him serving a stretch in prison. Upon his release, he learns that the world has moved on without him. Rodney is even deeper in debt and suffering from PTSD, finding his solace in bare knuckle fights, which often require him to take a dive. Lena has moved on with the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker), and both Rodney and John Petty are going to realize that clearing your debts is easier said than done, especially when those debts are to DeGroat.
As revenge dramas go, “Out of the Furnace” is a bit of a throwback, but not weighed down by nostalgia or a needless homage. The grittiness of the tone right out the gate will bring to mind films ranging from “The Fighter” to “The Deer Hunter,” but it’s that lack of cinematic gloss that makes the film come to life.
Christian Bale was Cooper’s hand-picked choice for the role of Russell, and it’s easy to tell the actor’s comfort level in revealing deep-seated emotions in the character as he makes the painful journey from everyday working guy, to convict, to struggling to find his place. His emotional scenes with Saldana, particularly when she reveals how she’s moved on to Whittaker, are some of the most gutwrenching I’ve seen onscreen in a while. Woody Harrelson has come a long way since the ditzy bartender in “Cheers,” and nowhere is it more apparent than in his role as badass Harlan DeGroat. He’s pure evil, but never strays into cornball movie villainy.
Director Scott Cooper masterfully engages the beauty and underlying evil in the hills of Braddock, Pennsylvania and Moundsville, West Virginia posing as the backwoods of New Jersey. Location is a crucial element in telling the story of the steel town suffering of the Baze family. The mountainous landscape serves as both home and hell for both Baze brothers, giving each a glimpse into their mortality, and it’s not always a pretty sight. Cooper and his crew present the near Appalachians in a slow, sweeping manner that makes the land seem as exotic as it is lethal, and not something you could find on Google maps. In a time of Hollywood backlots and CG marvels, it’s a testament to Cooper and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (“The Grey”) that aesthetics take equal billing alongside the Oscar-caliber actors on screen.