"Out of the Furnace" starts as a bleak portrait of two brothers' struggles in a small Appalachian Rust Belt community — a community rusting into oblivion – only to devolve into a desperate tale of manhood and revenge. A TV in a dingy bar in Braddock, Pa. (a real-life industrial town where much of the film was proudly shot) plays Ted Kennedy's 2008 DNC introduction of Barack Obama, the candidate of hope and change. But life is grim for the Brothers Baze, the elder Russell (Christian Bale) and younger Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck). Their father is on his death bed, sickened by years of toil at the local steel mill. Russell's attempt at an honest life working at the mill is interrupted by a jail sentence and Rodney, when not on his army tours of the war in Iraq, struggles to find peace back at home.
"Out of the Furnace" is too grim, really. Opening the film is an introduction not to the film's hero, but its villain, a backwoods beefed-up thug named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), who bullies his date at a drive-in theater and then beats the crap out of the guy who tries to stick up for her. If this sequence is too much for you, just leave the theater then, because things are only going to get worse.
At first "Out of the Furnace" resembles a Cain and Able parable. The well-intentioned Russell can't hurt a fly – or at least, shoot a deer on a camping trip with his uncle (Sam Shepard). Rodney meanwhile, can only escape the ghosts of the violence he saw on the battlefield by immersing himself in another form of violence, a behind-the-shed bare knuckle boxing circuit. The roles eventually will reverse in terms of which brother ultimately resorts to murder, but only after Russell faces a Job-like spate of unfortunate events.
While Russell tries to get his life back on track after prison – further bruised by the abandonment of his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) for the town sheriff (Forest Whitaker) – Rodney spirals even further, his path eventually crossing DeGroat, via the reluctant dealings of his bookie (Willem Dafoe). A deal the three have to throw a boxing game goes south, leading to Rodney's disappearance. Frustrated by authorities wary to intervene in DeGroat's dangerous dealings, Russell decides to go after DeGroat himself, in a suspenseful game of cat and mouse mediated by shot guns.
Director Scott Cooper, an actor who crossed over to directing with "Crazy Heart," pulls riveting performances out of his stars. Christian Bale faces his character's enormous setbacks with graces and sincerity, while Affleck reveals himself to be tortured soul in many dimensions. Harrelson gives it his all playing DeGroat, creating a near diabolical villain that lives up to his menacing name. Cooper pays equal attention to the visual details of his setting – one well worn by the cinema – with lyrically composed shots of winding forest roads, dirty train tracks, decrepit houses and meager kitchens.
But that doesn't mean "Out of the Furnace" is pleasant to watch. The despondency is unceasing, the violence escalating; the only solace is the warmth of the brotherly bond between Russell and Rodney. Once that is broken, hope is all but lost, and even the valiant Russell loses himself in his quest for revenge.
The broader circumstances that produce the dire actions of the film's characters should not be overlooked. Russell's factory, the only way of life he has ever known, is set to be closed, its labor outsourced to China. Rodney's stint in the army, his only way out of the dead-end factory life lived by his father and brother, has damaged him gravely. And of course there's the flash of the DNC on the television, the most visual contrast of a life outside the proverbial furnace Rodney and Russell are trapped in, where the torch of promise Kennedy passes to Obama is a light that has skipped over their world entirely.
"Out of the Furnace" would do better by bringing these issues more prominently to the forefront. Whatever their implications are, they are overshadowed by a heavy-handed pile of dirt and grime "Out of the Furnace" piles on. "Out of the Furnace" shows no restraint in the violence and depravity it depicts. That such darkness deserves to be portrayed is fine, but to what ends? "Out of the Furnace" never truly explains or justifies. The film's furnace is mighty fiery, but what it produces is rather lackluster.