Hard luck lives provide a breeding ground for bad breaks in the bruising, emotionally wrought tale, Out of the Furnace, a movie that faded quickly from theater screens last December, a victim of competition from Oscar favorites and its own regrettably bland title. Now resurrected on home video, the picture deserves a much closer look, not only for its beautifully rendered sense of place, but also for its knot of embattled, resonant characters, fully brought to life by a near-perfect cast of veteran actors.
Set in the steel-making Pittsburgh suburb of Braddock, portrayed here as a begrimed collection of blue-collar bars, busted pickups, and dilapidated houses, Out of the Furnace introduces us to the Baze brothers. Christian Bale plays the stable, working-class laborer, Casey Affleck the PTSD-afflicted soldier. After four tours in Iraq, he is a wiry ball of anger, scrambling to earn money in back-alley boxing matches that have left him in debt to Willem Dafoe’s fight organizer.
Dafoe is a key to this film’s palette of muscular but empathetic steel-town lifers; no bullshit, thick-skinned types who have a soft spot for local losers. Sam Shepard plays another, the brothers’ uncle, willing to lay down his life for the family’s honor. And then there’s Woody Harrelson, playing a murderous meth head with a frightening intensity. He rules over a backwoods dominion of scary, tattooed bare-knuckle boxers, where Affleck ends up in a bid to clear his debts with one last fight.
The second film from director Scott Cooper, Out of the Furnace could have ended up a melodramatic rehash of any number of other forgettable C-level actioners; or it could have gone soft in a bid for middle-of-the-road popularity, similar to the lingering aftertaste of Cooper’s Crazy Heart, a film that smelled of studio compromise in a bid to secure the Oscar for Jeff Bridges. But Cooper keeps the heat on in this picture. The mood is one of simmering violence and wrenching heartbreak, delimiting an America of have-nots resigned to their marginal plight.
In the center of this spiral is Bale, delivering a knockout performance that might be the best thing he’s ever done. A good man, nearly physically undone by a fateful accident, and then wrenched to grief by a love that slipped from his fingers (Zoe Saldana is memorable as the girlfriend), Bale’s temporary torment parallels Affleck’s permanent maelstrom. Before Affleck exits the picture, he exudes the characteristics of a self-destructive lost cause. Like so many who came back from the war, every move he makes is shadowed with a death wish.
Parallel narrative strategies figure in Cooper’s visual design as well, but it is here where he stumbles a bit. In one sequence, he intercuts a SWAT team raid with shots of Harrelson cooking and shooting meth; in another, he builds tension simultaneously between a deer hunt and a perilous fistfight. One sequence ends in a dead-end tease; the other with a more plausible attempt at metaphor, as the slaughtered and skinned deer stands for the raw psychological damage afflicting these battered men.
But the film overcomes these lapses. The strength of the performances, paired with a fierce pictorial integrity and quietly expressive score, makes a searing impression. Out of the Furnace, with the benefit of a home-video second chance, stands as one of the best movies of 2013.
This review first appeared in The Restless Critic.