The town that Out of the Furnace takes place is one of those communities that hasn't quite died yet, but there is no hope for a future. The steelmill dominates life and once the mill closes, the outlook is grim. With few to no prospects left, locals resort to gambling and underground activities for cash. Russell Baze (Christian Bale) pushes on, working extra shifts at the mill, hoping for the best and saving for a child with his girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana).
Russell possesses a zen-like acceptance that things will eventually work out, despite his entire life proving that the opposite is true. His father was a lifer in the steel mills and is dying with what little dignity he can cling to. Rounding out that East of Eden relationship is younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rather than submit himself to the resignation that permeates through his brother's life, Rodney opts for a big score through local bookie (Willem Dafoe).
A tragic accident sets Russell struggling to retrace what he had and after Rodney's tour overseas, the lengths to which he will go for a comfortable profit margin see no end. Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) is without doubt one of the most vicious characters ever set to the silverscreen, so when Rodney finds himself involved in the backwoods crime syndicate, the lingering dread becomes realized. With his brother missing for more than a week, Russell seeks out police assistance. Told that there is nothing to be done and left with no legal recourse, Russell must choose whether to take measures that will send him down a dark path. A path that leads to the sadistically cruel world of Harlan DeGroat.
Scott Cooper's first film Crazy Heart featured a down on his luck musician who was plagued by the drink and finally got Jeff Bridges his well-deserved Oscar. In his second directorial feature Cooper proves that his touch with actors was not beginner's luck. He rounds up an outstanding cast for this considerably more bleak drama, and they elevate some of the predictable material into tense, compelling viewing.
A grounded performance, he doesn't force any moments with his showier castmates Affleck and Harrelson. He merely reflects and internalizes these scenes instead of outwardly exploding like his turns in American Psycho and The Fighter. Here, Bale disappears into the character. As the run-time dwindles down on Out of the Furnace it becomes clear that the amount of right decisions for Russell are disappearing as well. And that heartbreak can be read all over his face.
Casey Affleck rages his way through his supporting turn, but the brotherly bond with Bale is always there. Glances, nods, obnoxious posturing communicate much more than words. The two create a very lived-in relationship that, much like the rest of the supporting cast, enhances even the smallest developments onscreen.
Out of the Furnace wouldn't feel out of place as moody character study in the 1970s that popularized films like The Deer Hunter and Scott Cooper manages the balancing act between dark and morbidly depressing well. Unfortunately portions of the film feel like they were plucked from other sources, making events in the second and third acts feel as if they are telegraphed. A gut-punch of an ending resurrects positive response to the film, but it isn't quite enough to overcome the derivative nature of what comes before. Still, with a cast this strong delivering on all fronts, the film earns a recommendation.