The rusted-out soul of steel-town America and the ghosts of the 1970s post-Vietnam Hollywood cinema haunt Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace,” a starkly powerful drama that in some ways feels like an Iraq-era bookend to “The Deer Hunter,” with bare-knuckle boxing substituted for Russian roulette. A much darker and less audience-friendly package than Cooper’s Oscar-winning 2009 debut, “Crazy Heart,” but graced by the same lyrical sense of worn-down American lives, this slow-burning drama should earn deserved praise for the top-drawer performances of stars Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and a truly frightening Woody Harrelson, but will need a lot of TLC from distrib Relativity (which opens the pic wide on Dec. 6) to break out commercially in a very crowded holiday frame.
The furnace of the title is literally the Carrie Furnace of Braddock, Penn., the real Rust Belt town where Cooper’s pic is set. But it is also the fire that burns inside Rodney Baze (Affleck), a native son of Braddock who opted out of mill life the only way he could, by joining the Army. There, he’s served three tours of duty in Iraq and is, when the movie begins, about to be “stop-lossed” into a fourth — and one need look no further than Affleck’s anguished gaze to know that Rodney has seen and done things that mark a man for the rest of his life. Rodney’s more straight-arrow brother, Russell (Bale), did go to work in the mill, like their father before him, and has one of the few remaining jobs there in lean economic times. The year is 2008 and the Obama election is playing out on TV, but for places like Braddock, the promise of “change” seems as empty as most of the storefronts along the main streets.
And for much of the first hour of “Out of the Furnace,” Cooper (who rewrote the script by Brad Inglesby) steeps us in the dead-end mood of the place: the off-track betting parlor where Rodney gambles away money borrowed from an avuncular barkeep and bookie (Willem Dafoe); the forlorn drive-in movie theater where a hair-trigger tweaker named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) uncorks his rage on his unsuspecting girlfriend; and Carrie Furnace itself, blackening the Braddock skies in a permanent veil of soot. Shot “entirely and proudly” (per the end credits) on 35mm Kodak film by the cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (“The Grey,” “Silver Linings Playbook”), the images have an ashen pallor that calls to mind William Blake and his “dark Satanic mills.”
Things happen in “Out of the Furnace” with the violent, unpredictable force of life itself, rather than the reassuring rhythms of most screenplays. First, a late-night car accident lands Russell in jail on manslaughter charges, during which enough time passes for Rodney to take his fourth tour in Iraq, and for Russell’s girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) to leave him for the town sheriff (Forest Whitaker). The prison scenes carry their own brutal, unsparing power, and when Russell is finally released, Bale plays the moment remarkably, taking in a few deep breaths as if he were breathing air for the first time. These are the kind of small, character-revealing moments that Cooper, as he did in “Crazy Heart,” supplies in spades.
Affleck has a lean, prowling intensity here as the combat vet who, like the bomb-disposal ace paralyzed by the choices in a suburban supermarket in “The Hurt Locker,” cannot easily readjust to civilian life. So Rodney finds himself drawn into the local bare-knuckle fight scene, where the purses are low but the pain reliably numbing. And eventually he turns to Dafoe, asking for an introduction to DeGroat and the higher-stakes fights he runs in the deep backwoods of neighboring New Jersey — a decision that will come to bind all of these disparate characters in a cycle of tragedy and vengeance, a war at home to rival the one abroad.
Perhaps because he was originally an actor himself (“Gods and Generals,” “Get Low”), Cooper seems to make actors feel safe and willing to expose themselves in ways they ordinarily might not, and time and again he takes scenes to places of unexpected emotional power. Bale in particular has a series of strikingly fragile, tender moments here, forging an effortless brotherly bond with Affleck and playing a heartbreaking reunion scene with Saldana in which a lifetime of regrets and bad decisions seems to surge inside him. Harrelson is scarily effective as the movie’s hillbilly Walter White, precisely because he never descends into the lip-smacking movie villainy, always seeming — like all of the characters in “Out of the Furnace” — a product of his bleak environment. In their smaller roles, Dafoe, Whitaker and Sam Shepard (as the brothers’ grizzled uncle) all do sensitive, affecting, understated work.
But unlike many actor-directors, Cooper is an equally skilled visual storyteller, staging a SWAT team raid on DeGroat’s compound with an editorial sleight-of-hand borrowed from “The Silence of the Lambs” and always fostering a vivid sense of a place cut off from time and the world. When a character first mentions Jersey, it sounds as far away as Jerusalem. Superior work by production designer Therese DePrez (“American Splendor,” “Black Swan”) and costume designers Kurt & Bart (“Stoker”) adds to the lived-in milieu. Licensed for the first time for a movie soundtrack, Pearl Jam’s “Release” (in both its original and a newly re-recorded version) bookends the film with Eddie Vedder’s wailing, soulful refrain, while composer Dickon Hinchliffe (“Winter’s Bone”) provides the moody original score.