Although Christian Bale plays a down-to-earth factory guy in Scott Cooper’s bashed-knuckle drama, there’s still a dark superhero glimmer to his too-good-to-be-true character. In a story littered with moral compromises and horrendous decisions, Bale’s Russell Baze doesn’t show a moment of weakness. He stalks right into the very maw of an Appalachian hell without seeming to give it a second thought. After all, he has his family to defend. That would be all well and good were Russell being played by Charles Bronson and this was a world of strict blacks and whites. But Cooper seems to be aiming for something different, trying to tell a familiar vengeance story with uncommon grit and attention to character. Batman just doesn’t fit that well into that kind of universe.
Russell is the long-suffering brother of Rodney (Casey Affleck), a multi-tour Iraq War veteran who can’t get the hang of civilian life back in the rust- and smog-spattered Pennsylvania mill town the Baze brothers grew up in. Rodney bets money he doesn’t have on the ponies. He tussles in bare-knuckle fight clubs run by the biggest thing the town has for a crime boss, John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Both brothers are bent under the oppressive weight of their pasts and likely futures, embodied in the frail form of their sick father, gasping out his last breath after a grinding lifetime in the mill. But Russell seems to be coming through it all as the good son, with a solid job and dedicated girlfriend (Zoe Saldana). Then an accident knocks Russell’s life sideways, pitching him into prison for years. By the time he gets out, a tough but endurable life has turned hellish.
The initially baffling first scene of the film gives an indication of where everything is heading. We see Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a drug-addled backwoods psychopath, at a drive-in where he erupts in rage at his girlfriend and then bloodily pulverizes the man who tries to protect her. Appearing only briefly throughout the film’s first hour, he becomes Russell’s nemesis for the old-fashioned showdown to come. After a fourth tour, Rodney has collapsed further into self-destruction, finding his only release in those fight clubs being held in the shuttered factories that dot the primal landscape like post-apocalyptic ruins. Eventually this brings both of the Baze brothers up against DeGroat, who runs his own miniature crime syndicate out of the Ramapo mountains in New Jersey. It’s a good against evil struggle, but nobody gets away clean.
Cooper works hard bringing a poetic gravitas to his working-class setting, and it very nearly makes the film into something it’s not. The incomparable cinematography paints everything in lush but muted tones, befitting the characters’ limited circumstances. Everything pulses with an operatic emotional weight that nearly but never quite tips over into Hollywood blue-collar shtick. Affleck imbues Rodney’s terror that he lost his soul in Iraq with an elegiac fury that the actor has rarely displayed, while Bale carries a novel’s worth of pain in his eyes. When Cooper sends the brothers into DeGroat’s mythologically depraved kingdom of Morlockian tweakers, it’s as though they have crossed the River Styx itself.
By the time the film gets to its final showdown, though, the familiarity of the drama underlying all of this funereal, nearly literary gloom becomes hard to sustain. There’s nothing to complain about with any of the performances, though Harrelson’s habit of swallowing half his dialogue proves problematic. But the dragging final third plays out just as a thousand other revenge-based stories have, adding little to the well-trod terrain besides dragging out a couple key scenes well past their expiration date. With all its burnished credentials and hardworking performers, Out of the Furnace is a film that brings a gun to a knife fight and still almost loses.