Out of the Furnace falls into conventional plot threads but engages due to its lively characterizations and Cooper’s transformative, piercing direction. The movie centers on Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a mill worker who drinks often but has enough time to visit his dying father alongside his uncle, Gerald (Sam Shepard). His brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), visits too and spends much of his time gambling; in fact, he even gets involved with street fighting that often leads to serious injury, and sometimes death. He fights for John Petty (Willem Dafoe), a bar owner that owes plenty of money to Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a sick son of a bitch who lives with a bunch of inbreds and rednecks up in the mountainous areas of the Northeast. After Russell lands in jail for a regrettable act and Rodney goes missing, Russell takes it upon himself to exact revenge.
To define the film as a simple revenge flick undermines the effectiveness of its characters. These are beautifully layered creations, particularly those by Bale and Affleck. Christian Bale remains one of the most consistently great actors in the business, disappearing into roles when logic says he should always be Batman in people’s eyes. Yet he redefines himself with every role he takes, and gives Russell an emotional core that is defined by love, whether that be for his father, his brother, his uncle, or his girlfriend. There’s a scene in particular that’s one of the best executed of the year: Russell and Lena, played by Zoe Saldana, discuss their future together after she has moved on. When she reveals a particular element of her life, and Russell says he is happy for her, she begins tearing up. And as he continues to say he thinks it’s wonderful, he realizes he can’t lie anymore and begins sobbing. It’s such a brilliant battle between emotional forces on both Bale and Saldana’s part, and Cooper’s direction captures the inherent tragedy behind Russell’s life and, more specifically, his actions that led him to this moment.
And I won’t forget Affleck’s performance, who alongside Bale and Saldana stands as one of the best performances of the year. Particularly in his exchanges with DeGroat, Rodney emerges as a strong, increasingly embattled war vet that simply cannot find a way to live that makes him happy. His last resort is fighting, and he excels at it; the tragedy stems from his inability to understand his limits and when to let things go. There’s a wonderful moment where the audience realizes Rodney’s future as we hear the hope that he has for what’s to come, and the life he wants to lead, and Affleck dives deep into that particular moment. This is an emotionally draining film at times due to its increasing intensity, and Cooper does not relent. DeGroat becomes increasingly vile as he goes along, with Harrelson providing a gleefully sadistic turn. Even if the film falls into narrative simplicities, the film always drives forward on its characters. The final scene allows the audience to fully understand Russell’s actions, and create a sympathetic moment out of an act of violence.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)