"Out of the Furnace" is an earnestly crafted, passionately acted working-class drama rusted over by its noble intentions of steel-town sympathizing.
Director Scott Cooper (whose first film, "Crazy Heart," was also drawn to the dwindling options of an increasingly obsolete hard worker) sets his movie in Braddock, Pa., where he also shot it. The town mill hovers as the empty heart of a corroded city.
Cooper lays the atmosphere on thick, suffocating the film with worn interiors, factory smokestacks, dive bars and highway overpasses. It's filled with tattoos, beer bottles, muscle cars, flannel shirts and, to top it off, Eddie Vedder (who opens the film with the song "Release").
The film's cliches are many, but few will doubt its weighty sincerity, its heavy-handed Rust Belt eulogizing.
What's dying? The lives of blue-collar men. The film is centered on the Baze brothers, Russell (Christian Bale) and Rodney (Casey Affleck), both of whom are finding that, as their father dies of lung cancer from years at the mill, life in Braddock is dried up.
Russell is an honest mill worker and Rodney is an increasingly lost Army man, altered badly from repeated tours in Iraq.
They're two of the men in this very macho ensemble that also includes Woody Harrelson, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe and Forrest Whitaker. One of the pleasures of "Out of the Furnace" is to be in the company of such a fine group of faces, all of them various shades of weariness and anger. (Humor is emphatically not one of the movie's shades, as much as one might hope for a rendition of "YMCA" from its collection of mill worker, solider and police officer types.)
No, "Out of the Furnace" is serious business, announced from the first scene at a drive-in: a brutal, largely unprompted beat down given by Harrelson's Harlan DeGroat, who we later learn is a menacing Appalachian meth dealer and underworld figure. He's the fire the film's title promises, into which the Baze bothers will jump from the furnace of Braddock.
Their route to him begins when Rodney runs up a debt to a local bookie (Dafoe). After stopping by to secretly help pay it down (and have a drink pushed on him), Russell rams a car and is imprisoned for DUI. When he later gets out, things have worsened: Their father has died, his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana, the film's lone woman) has left him for a cop (Whitaker), and Rodney is now earning money in bare-knuckle fights. (The film "Warrior" is an obvious comparison to "Out of the Furnace.")
Affleck is excellent as Rodney, a tense, confused shell of rage. He wants punishment, and he finds it when he pushes, against repeated advice, to land a bout in DeGroat's ring.
Harrelson, such an uncommon force in movies, is again memorable here. When Rodney asks him if he has a problem with him, he gives a darker answer than Marlon Brando gave in "The Wild One": "I got a problem with everybody," he says.
"Out of the Furnace" makes an impression thanks to these performances, as well as Bale's captivating stillness. Cooper's drive to tell a story of Rust Belt decay has clearly elicited dedication in his cast.
But it has also given the film such heavy-handedness and hard-to-take allusions to "The Deer Hunter" that "Out of the Furnace" loses much of the authenticity it strives so hard for.
"Out of the Furnace," a Relativity Media release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "intense sequences of violence and action, some frightening images, thematic elements, a suggestive situation and language." Running time: 116 minutes. Two stars out of four.