It’s 2008 and the newly elected President Barack Obama is talking about hope, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of it in the dying steel town of Braddock, Penn.
Hard times, they’ve got. Economic slow rot, limited prospects, bleakness as far as the eye can see. But hopefulness? Not so much.
Which is good, actually, because hope tends to gets in the way when you’re trying to cultivate hard-core drama. And that’s precisely what’s going on in “Out of the Furnace,” an unapologetically downbeat, yet reassuringly righteous tale of brotherly love in grim circumstances from writer/director Scott Cooper — who also made the Oscar-winning “Crazy Heart.”
Christian Bale is quiet, scraggly-bearded dignity personified as Russell Baze, a decent-to-the-core mill worker who puts family first. In addition to caring for his cancer-stricken father (with assists from Sam Shepard as his quietly decent uncle), he’s also looking after his little brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a loose-cannon Iraq war vet with a tendency to get into big trouble between tours.
Things aren’t so bad at first. Russell’s got a good job, a way-too-beautiful-for-Braddock girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) and a shot at a happy future. Then he’s thrown into prison for being involved in a fatal car crash shortly after leaving a bar and, when he gets out, everything has changed. His girlfriend has left him for the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker), his father has died and his brother is deeply in debt to a local gambler (Willem Dafoe) and doing some bare-knuckle boxing to pay it off. But Rodney has a little trouble remembering to take a dive when he’s told to. So, eventually, he talks the gambler into arranging one big final fight for him under the auspices of Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) the wacko New Jersey hill-country meth manufacturer who controls the area’s bare-knuckle action. And that’s the last Russell hears from him.
Now, Russell’s a peace-loving, law-abiding man, so he waits for the police to do their job and bring DeGroat to justice. But when that doesn’t happen, mainly because DeGroat’s such a psycho that everyone is terrified by him, well, what’s a family-loving man with nothing worth living for to do?
Clearly, there are a lot of familiar, verging on over-familiar, elements in play here: The Troubled Veteran Having Difficulties Readjusting to Civilian Life, the One Last Fight (or bank job or con game or you-name-it) that’s supposed to set everything right and the Decent Family Man Pushed Beyond the Limit. Fortunately, though, the characters have more shadings and nuance than you might expect and the same goes for the performance — especially Harrelson, whose evil and irredeemable DeGroat shows just enough humanity to make him seem, toward the end, almost a tragic figure. Almost.
Most of all, though, it’s the mood of the whole thing, the bone-deep, brooding melancholy of it, that ultimately gives “Out of the Furnace” its dramatic heft. Hope? Who needs it?