An underlying theme of the dreary but effectively performed “Out of the Furnace” is that life is not fair, and how people deal with that fact defines them as a person.
“Furnace,” directed and co-written with Brad Ingelsby by Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”), focuses on three characters whose lives intertwine with sobering results. Each has his own way of dealing with the challenges of their existence, and the sad conclusion in this movie is that hard work and an honest life do not always pay off handsomely.
The soul of “Furnace” is Christian Bale as Russell Baze, a man living in the economically depressed Iron Belt. His hometown of Braddock is well past its prime, but residing and working there are all he has known. He puts in long hours at the steel mill and has a strong relationship with girlfriend Lena Taylor (Zoe Saldana). On the down side, he lives under the ominous cloud of the mill possibly shutting down as cheaper steel from China encroaches upon the industry. His widowed father is dying, the old man’s body worn down from years toiling in the mill.
Also of concern to Russell is his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), a soldier who in between tours of service in Iraq returns to Braddock and falls into debt. Rodney wants to break away from the Baze tradition of being mill employees but has no other job prospects lined up. In desperation he turns to illegal fighting, hooking up with the local operator, John Petty (Willem Dafoe), and earning money for taking falls in the bouts – except that sometimes in the heat of battle he forgets he is supposed to lose.
During Rodney’s fourth tour of Iraq, Russell’s life takes a tragic turn, but he accepts the consequences and works on getting his life back together, even though his father now is gone and Lena has begun a new relationship with police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). Russell pours his energy into renovating his father’s old house and resuming his employment in the mill.
On the periphery initially is Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a counterpart to John Petty but much more powerful. DeGroat resides and rules in the remote mountain areas of the northeast, where the sense of community is strong, with its own sets of rules and justice. Here, the police are mostly decorations. Harlan and his henchmen keep people in line.
Rodney returns from Iraq bearing physical and emotional scars from his tour there. Still indebted to Petty, he talks the reluctant Petty into setting up a fight in DeGroat’s territory. While Petty is looked upon warily in Braddock, he knows his place, and he knows that Harlan’s country is way more perilous than his own. Rodney’s story follows a familiar one of a person who vows to go astray just one more time, securing that big score, so he can settle into a stable life. Often these plans turn out tragically.
Harlan, aside from putting on fights, also deals in drugs, and as the opening sequence in the movie illustrates, is a loose cannon. It turns out that Petty’s worst fears about Harlan prove to be dead on.
Back in Braddock, just as Russell tries to come to terms with losing Lena, he is informed that Rodney has gone missing. He soon learns that law enforcement likely will not be effective in tracking down his brother. Harlan’s power is just too entrenched. So Russell, a man who always played by the rules, has to stray from that lifestyle to save Rodney.
Bale is engrossing as Russell, a man being dealt more setbacks than he deserves but maintaining a general faith in humanity until he is pushed too far. The rest of the cast is superb. Affleck is tragic as Rodney, the black sheep of the family, wanting to break out but essentially drifting along. Saldana’s Lena has fine moments as a young woman who has moved on with her life but still has strong feelings for Russell while being dedicated to Wesley.
Harrelson can play really unhinged characters, so he is in his element in “Furnace,” a man borderline crazy but also crafty. Some excellent support is provided by Whitaker – there are a couple of scenes involving Russell and Wesley that play out the dynamics of the relationship between the two as they are drawn together in solving the mystery of Rodney’s disappearance and must set aside the personal issues.
Also effective is Sam Shepard as Russell’s Uncle Gerald, who becomes a father figure, supporting Russell even as the man steps into danger.
As shown in “Crazy Heart,” Cooper has a sharp eye for human interaction, and in “Furnace” he tells a grim, humorless story that is violent and gritty but also conveys the warmth of people, particularly the brothers Russell and Rodney, who truly care for one another.