The unforgiving back roads and rusted-out mill towns of Appalachia provide the bleak backdrop and emotional landscape of “Out of the Furnace,” a well-acted, beautifully filmed, utterly depressing chronicle of revenge and thwarted dreams in post-industrial America.
Anchored by compelling performances from Christian Bale and Casey Affleck, “Out of the Furnace” may have taken its title and setting from Thomas Bell’s 1941 novel “Out of This Furnace,” about the immigrant community in Braddock, Pa., and the history of unionization. But director Scott Cooper, with co-writer Brad Inglesby, sets his story squarely in the recent past, when Bale’s character, Russell Baze, works in a steel mill on the brink of closing while his brother, Rodney (Affleck), prepares for yet another tour in Iraq.
“Out of the Furnace” transpires over several years, during which the fortunes of the brothers diverge and overlap, most notably when a menacing meth dealer and bare-knuckle boxing impresario named Harlan DeGroat comes to town. Played with terrifying intensity by Woody Harrelson, DeGroat is a sadistic, almost feral figure, who hails from New Jersey’s Ramapo Mountains, as lawless and god-forsaken a place as any redoubt in the Wild West. Braddock, where much of “Out of the Furnace” was filmed, emerges on the other hand as a relatively civilized refuge, where Russell quietly tries to rebuild his life after a tragic mistake amidst the crumbling remnants of a once-thriving town.
Cooper, who directed “Crazy Heart” a few years ago, once again evinces a gift for conveying atmosphere, carefully framing and composing his shots to lend “Out of the Furnace” a reserved, even stately, air of dignity. And he knows how to get the best from his actors (Jeff Bridges, who won an Academy Award for his performance in “Crazy Heart,” might agree). Affleck delivers a searing portrayal of a young man who pushes himself to the punishing physical limit in search of both money and catharsis. Bale’s part may not be as showy, but at least one moment — when Russell hears a pivotal piece of news on one of Braddock’s bridges — could stand the test of time as a mini-master class in the art of screen acting.
Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana and Forest Whitaker — this year’s movie MVP — round out an outstanding supporting cast in a story that evokes “The Deer Hunter” in its depiction of post-war trauma in a Pennsylvania town, as well as “Winter’s Bone” in its gothic, sometimes labored portrayal of what happens when a society has abandoned its working class. There are good men in “Out of the Furnace,” as well as bad men, and sad men and stupid men — but even the best of them have blood on their hands, usually their own. Even when it descends into self-consciousness in a lurid final act, “Out of the Furnace” effectively brings viewers into a space where whatever people had to lose was either squandered or stolen.
★ ★ ★
R. At area theaters. Contains strong violence, profanity and drug content. 116 minutes.