Out of the Furnace, director Scott Cooper’s first movie since his Oscar-winning Crazy Heart four years ago, is stoked with elements from so many other films that it easily could have slipped down the rabbit hole of cliche. Taking place in a small town in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt, it has everything a viewer would expect when Hollywood goes blue-collar: a steel plant on the verge of shutting down, quarreling working-class brothers, meth, and lots of hootin’ and hollerin’ from locals with bad teeth.
But Out of the Furnace, based on a script from Cooper and Brad Ingelsby, is saved by a couple of surprises and mostly by the performances from its big-ticket cast.
Christian Bale is Russell Baze, a good-hearted mill worker with a girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), who loves him. He has his problems — a dying father, and a hot-headed brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), who’d rather gamble than get a real job — but life’s OK.
Things take a turn for the worse, though, when Russell, after drinking, is involved in a car wreck that kills passengers in the other car. He is sent to prison, and Rodney, without Russell around to cover his debts, gets in deeper with a loan shark, John (Willem Dafoe), who also happens to stage backwoods, bare-knuckle brawls for bloodthirsty mobs.
Meanwhile, Lena ends up in the arms of another man, police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker).
To pay off his debt once and for all, Rodney agrees to be the fall guy and take a dive in a fight organized by vicious drug dealer Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) who, as we see in the movie’s opening scene, is not above choking his girlfriend with a drive-in hot dog for sport. He’s so unhinged that he even scares John. It’s a role Harrelson throws himself into with relish.
When Russell comes home, he tries to get Rodney out of this dangerous game he’s playing, but it’s too late. So Russell takes it upon himself to confront DeGroat.
Bale is effective as the put-upon older sibling trying to keep his emotions in check, while Affleck is explosive as the younger brother, not long returned from Iraq, who can’t find his footing. Saldana, best known for the “Star Trek” reboots and Avatar, really gets to show a range that she’s rarely asked to display.
The tense triangle involving Lena, Russell and Wesley — riven by unspoken divisions of class and race (the 2008 election of President Obama plays on a TV in an early scene; blacks and whites in town don’t seem to mix much) — gives Out of the Furnace a surprising depth beyond the brother battles driving the main narrative. As usual, Whitaker quietly shines in his part, even if he doesn’t have enough to do.
Out of the Furnace isn’t the most original film of the year, but that doesn’t lessen its enjoyment.