Out of the Furnace takes place in a small Pennsylvania town where generations of men have followed their fathers into grueling, thankless jobs at steel mills. The work is hard and unsatisfying, but it’s steady and reliable and pays just enough to cover the bills. Russell (Christian Bale) is making a go of it, spending his days dealing with molten steel and searing heat and caring for his aging father at home. Russell’s younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), reluctant to follow in the family tradition, enlisted in the Army, where he was rewarded with four tours of duty in Iraq. He returns home in 2008 damaged but still hopeful — like Russell, he’s a bright spirit. But Russell is serving a prison sentence for a tragic accident, their father has passed away and the recession has robbed Rodney of any job prospects. He has hit a dead end.
Scott Cooper, who directed and co-wrote Out of the Furnace, empathizes with people who feel their lives have hit a dead end (his previous film, Crazy Heart, earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar as a washed-up country singer who had given up on himself). These are difficult characters to dramatize — if they don’t care about themselves, then why should we? — and it’s even harder to keep their stories from becoming downward spirals of woe and despair. But the driving force behind Out of the Furnace is the love between two brothers who will do anything for each other — anything — because they are all they have left in the world after their dad dies.
Russell is the more level-headed of the two: Despite the accident that landed him in jail, he’s a responsible, thoughtful man who takes pride in his community. But once he’s out of prison, he learns his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) has left him to shack up with the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker), and Rodney has used the help of a small-time bookie (Willem Dafoe) to start competing in an underground fight ring lorded over by a deranged psychopath (Woody Harrelson in scary Natural Born Killers mode). The situation is so dire, the prospects so dim, that in practically any other movie you would check out, fearful of the inevitable tragedy ahead. But Cooper knows how to keep you hooked. He gets small but potent performances from his impressive cast (Sam Shepard plays the brothers’ uncle), and Bale, operating on a much quieter scale than the operatic Dark Knight pictures, makes you share Russell’s desperation at trying to do right by those he loves (his brother) and those who no longer love him back (his girlfriend).
The dingy fight clubs, drab industrial backdrops and bursts of shocking violence won’t be relatable to the average viewer. You’re always conscious you’re watching a carefully constructed movie, not real life (at least not your life). But Cooper, much like he did with the country music industry in Crazy Heart, makes you look past the strangeness of his scenario and focus on the humanity within. Affleck is heartbreaking as the wounded soul whose pride keeps getting in the way of his salvation: He’s the movie’s tragic heart. But this is ultimately Russell’s story, played with grace and dignity by Bale, a man who has led his life the way he was supposed to in hopes of simply getting by, until he’s forced by honor and duty to resort to the kind of extreme acts that will doom him for life. Sometimes, circumstance overrides logic and civility. Out of the Furnace is a boozy, searing portrait of disenfranchised people trying — and not always succeeding — to eke out an existence. But the movie celebrates their humanity and struggle makes you share their scalding pain, like molten steel on bare flesh.