Movie review: Ladled with violence, 'Out of the Furnace' delves into life-changing themes



In "Out of the Furnace," Russell Baze (Christian Bale) has never been east of Scranton.

He has the ZIP code for Braddock tattooed on the left side of his neck, carries his lunch to the steel mill in a small Igloo cooler and splits time away from work with his girlfriend and ailing dad. Russell followed his father into the mill, and he's a reliable blue-collar guy who would love to loan his brother $1,500 for a gambling debt, but he doesn't have that kind of cash to spare.

'Out of the Furnace'

Starring:Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson.

Rating: R for strong violence, language and drug content.


It's 2008, and Sen. Ted Kennedy is on the TV in the bar carrying coverage of the Democratic National Convention. Russell's younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), is being stop-lossed as the U.S. Army extends his tour of duty. He owes money to a local bookie who is tied into a bigger, nasty piece of work, Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). He's a backwoods rotter from New Jersey's Ramapo Mountains who is a crime boss and meth addict.

Almost everything we need to know about Harlan is telegraphed in the opening scene where his ugly, explosive temper is directed at his drive-in movie date and the stranger who tries to intervene.

It's Russell, however, who lands in prison after an accident, and his world collapses, piece by piece. Almost nothing is the same when he gets out, including Rodney, who is haunted by what he witnessed and did in Iraq and turns to bare-fisted brawling to channel his smoldering anger and to earn money.

Russell is pulled out of the furnace and into the fire in this gritty, grim drama examining violence in all its forms. On and off the battlefield, in makeshift boxing rings, in the woods where hunters stalk deer, and in the silent shadows of rusted reminders of industrial glory long gone.

Resisting violence or its aftermath seems futile, and Mr. Affleck's most powerful moment in this or possibly any of his films comes in the homiest of settings as he vividly recounts the carnage he saw overseas and, still jobless and literally scarred, screams of his service, "What's it [expletive] done for me?"

Mr. Bale, meanwhile, is a portrait of vulnerability and melancholy as he hears news that involuntarily makes his face fall and his eyes fill with tears. The camera pulls back, leaving him and us to process the news that shatters his hope for another chance at happiness.

Director-writer Scott Cooper assembled a remarkable cast -- it also includes Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepard not to mention Pittsburgher Bingo O'Malley as the frail, fading father of the Baze brothers.

The glass towers and evidence that Pittsburgh is a hip place to live are not on display in this drama that seems as if it could be transplanted to the 1970s or 1980s except for the types of drugs being dealt.

"Out of the Furnace," no connection to Thomas Bell's book "Out of This Furnace," filmed in places such as Braddock, North Braddock, Rankin, Clinton, Beaver County's Hookstown and the onetime West Virginia state penitentiary in Moundsville.

In addition to exploring a world in which the ravages of war follow men home, "Out of the Furnace" examines questions of brotherly bonds, homegrown justice, loyalty, joblessness and a disappearing way of workday life. It's far more ambitious than "Crazy Heart," which had a narrower focus with its broken-down country singer whose life changes when he meets a single mother and writer.

The parts are greater than the whole, and it's all so extreme that it feels like too much, but Mr. Cooper manages to allow his actors to turn coldly crazy or blindly angry or uncharacteristically bloodthirsty. And he bookends it with Eddie Vedder's heartbreaking voice on "Release," a perfect marriage of movie, music and mood.

 


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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