Braddock, Pa.—the steel-town setting for Scott Cooper’s superb Out of the Furnace—is nothing special to look at, except for the fact that it’s so perfectly, brilliantly nothing special to look at. The decaying steel mill at the center of its economy looks ready to collapse at any moment under the weight of its own rust; chain-link fences lean at precarious angles, barely standing on whatever weedy patch of ground they’re meant to be protecting. Contemporary filmmaking often seems second-unit-ed within an inch of its life, throwing in images of familiar geographical landmarks under the misguided impression that such insert shots can give a story a particular sense of place. Out of the Furnace moves with a distinctive rhythm, in part because it’s so deeply committed to telling a story that only happens because it’s in this place, at this time.
At the center is the Baze family, struggling in a way that’s both unique and sadly familiar. Russ (Christian Bale) works at the steel mill, his available emotional energy stretched between his girlfriend, Lena (ZoÃ« Saldana), helping care for his terminally ill father and cleaning up the gambling debts amassed by his brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). One extra drink and a moment of straying attention sends Russ into a car accident that kills two people, landing him in prison. And while Russ serves his time, the world keeps turning, including Lena leaving him and Rodney heading to Iraq to serve multiple Army tours.
The world-keeps-turning aspect of Out of the Furnace is part of what makes it so unusual in its storytelling pace. Where it’s easy to imagine most films zipping through Russ’s incarceration time with a captioned flash-forward, Cooper (Crazy Heart) and co-screenwriter Brad Ingelsby make us wait through it with him—watching as Russ tries unsuccessfully to stay out of trouble, observing his visits with Rodney in which he gets bad news from the outside about which he can do nothing. It feels risky to tell potential viewers that a narrative doesn’t snap along breathlessly, because heaven forbid that a movie take time to build texture. But Out of the Furnace is gripping exactly because it takes that kind of time. The choices these characters make are built steadily upon the choices that they made before, and the choices that we understand don’t really feel available to them.
Perhaps most surprisingly, the conflict emphasized in the movie’s basic plot summary and marketing campaign—between Russ and a violent minor-league crime kingpin named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson)—barely raises its head until Out of the Furnace is more than half over. As a PTSD-afflicted Rodney finds it difficult to adjust back to civilian life, he gets involved in fighting underground bare-knuckle brawls, eventually crossing paths with Harlan in a way that puts him at risk and sets Russ on a collision course with Harlan.
Harrelson turns in a great performance, as he generally does when playing someone who’s on the crazy spectrum; it’s easy to believe him when he responds to a rhetorical “you got a problem with me?” with “I’ve got a problem with everybody.” And it’d be easy to build a solid “they messed with his brother, now they’ve got to deal with him” tale out of a war between the redneck psycho and the decent man pushed too far.
But Out of the Furnace has bigger things on its mind. While it’s not exactly subtle to play a shot of the 2008 Democratic National Convention on a bar television during an early scene, it effectively sets the scene in an America facing economic hardship and hoping for a better tomorrow. Then, Cooper lets us watch as Russ, piece by piece, loses all the things that matter to him, to the point where he doesn’t see any reason to imagine a future. The moments of clunky symbolism don’t erase the heartbreaking way this story makes both Baze brothers poster boys for the slow drip of an existence that keeps pushing you into a corner. And Out of the Furnace turns its one very specific corner into a metaphor for an America where every blue collar seems to be choking the life out of the men and women who wear them.
OUT OF THE FURNACE
Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck