Film review: A hard luck story goes bust in Out of the Furnace

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Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) directs Christian Bale (above) as he treads through economic and familial struggles in Out of the Furnace. Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) directs Christian Bale (above) as he treads through economic and familial struggles in Out of the Furnace.

Out of the Furnace is so dark, gritty, and earnest, it’s a wonder it was made in a film world where irony rules. The movie’s inhabitants—mostly blue collar factory workers, cops and their families in dying Braddock, Pennsylvania—take their lives seriously, and so does their director and co-writer Scott Cooper.

Unfortunately, Out of the Furnace isn’t quite sure what to do with itself and begins to collapse under the inevitability of its own story. Early on, we see Russell Baze (Christian Bale) sitting at a bar, nursing a beer. The late Senator Ted Kennedy is on television espousing the virtues of Barack Obama, setting us in 2008.

So we begin at a hopeless time for blue collar workers, or really, anyone in the United States who isn’t among the top 10 percent of earners. But for anyone who thinks Out of the Furnace has something to say about choices, circumstances, or the plight of the working class, think again. Soon after Russell finishes his drink, he’s in a drunk-driving accident that results in two deaths, and he’s in prison.

When he gets out, much has happened. The girlfriend, Lena (Zoë Saldana, underused), is with someone else. The brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), a four-tour Iraq War veteran, is street fighting for money, and Russell’s father is dead.

Worse, Rodney is in hock to John Petty (Willem Dafoe), the local loan shark and bookmaker. Dafoe is good, but his character is as dumb as Affleck’s is bewildered, and before long they’re in Appalachia dealing with the kind of redneck, Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson on auto-pilot), that cops are afraid of.

And what starts as a tale of hard working class lives at the dawn of the Great Recession turns into a family revenge tale. If Out of the Furnace—a reference to the steel mill in town—were a Western, it would be called Frontier Justice. And hopefully, like the great Westerns, it would be about something deeper than a bunch of people on the prairie defending their families.

But Out of the Furnace, which has a chance to say something about the working poor and veterans, is instead about revenge. The sheriff (Forest Whitaker, underused), is impotent to take care of things when Rodney and John go missing and Russell must intervene with help from his uncle (Sam Shepard, who’s always welcome).

Out of the Furnace does tap into larger themes, if only momentarily. There are rumblings of Rodney’s apparently undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, and more than one character mentions the lack of opportunity for returning vets. Ultimately, word comes that the mill is closing.

It’s backseat territory. Movies that want to be about hard lives under difficult circumstances don’t open with a showpiece in which DeGroat, at a drive-in, shoves a whole hot dog down his date’s throat and beats the hell out of a man who tries to help her. No, a movie with that opening scene ends with a showdown, and that’s exactly what we get in Out of the Furnace. See if you can spot all the references to The Deer Hunter.

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