Amid December’s array of Oscar bait sidles the relatively subdued Rust Belt revenge fantasy Out of the Furnace, the sophomore film effort of director Scott Cooper. He takes the same approach here as he did in his debut, 2009’s Crazy Heart. By making the most of a cast that moves within a well-worn story and dealing alternately in under- and overstatement, Cooper manages a drama that occasionally missteps but delivers on character study.
In terms of plot, events hover somewhere between blue-collar noir and a Johnny Cash song. While in prison for manslaughter, furnace worker Russell loses his father to illness and his girlfriend to the town police chief. With only his Iraq War-vet brother as his connection to the world, shortly after his release, he loses his brother, too. When authorities can’t get results, Russell has to decide if revenge is worth risking what little he has left. It’s an unrelenting downward slide, and it falls to the cast to make the film more than the sum of its parts.
And what a cast. This is a character study at heart, and on a scenic level, nearly every shot in Out of the Furnace has some acting worth a look. Christian Bale brings subsumed magnetism to Russell, in a performance rife with a vocabulary of careful silences, where every glance speaks volumes. Casey Affleck, whose effectiveness always depends on his material, stokes the film’s first half as Rodney, an aimless youth turned disturbed veteran in a downward spiral of bare-knuckle fights. His flat, tight stare betrays roiling anger so eloquently that it feels like undercutting when he finally lists his horrors for Russell. It’s a trend that continues; the script falters when it aims for higher drama and is best when letting tension build in oblique, natural conversation. Zoe Saldana, in a glorified cameo, delivers one of her best performances to date during an awkward reconciliation with Russell after his release. It’s such a smartly underplayed scene that it’s almost enough to make you forget her role is essentially a talking uterus.
And that’s one of the movie’s trip-ups: Even with two well-realized leads and a cast determined to make the most of every line, many characters are mere suggestion. It’s a particular drawback in one-dimensional villain Harlan, who’s introduced while shoving a hot dog down a woman’s throat and beating an intervening bystander just to establish he’s bad news. He’s saved somewhat by the sheer determination of Woody Harrelson’s portrayal, but the script seems content to keep the man a sketch; it’s more preoccupied with Russell’s tipping point concerning him. A particularly intense scene follows Russell and his uncle (Sam Shepard, strong and silent) heading into Harlan’s Appalachian stronghold to search for Rodney, with no plan but enough determination that even Harlan’s presence isn’t nerve-wracking by comparison. Russell doesn’t know what he’d do if he found Harlan; that’s what frightens him.
Of course, in film, the camera is the unnamed character in every scene. For cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, there’s an easy shift between loose, lingering frames and a quiet obsession with the actors’ faces. A few standout shots—like the slow dolly toward an idyllic wood through the black frame of a burned-out window on Harlan’s grounds—do more to establish the tension between peaceful dream and ugly reality in the third act than the script manages. Interestingly, given the laundry-list of losses Russell suffers, touching on a number of social ills (industrial decline, the prison system, returning troops’ mental-health issues), the camera can’t seem to decide if it’s observing a community or illustrating blue-collar cages. When Russell asks his restless brother, “What’s wrong with working for a living?” he means it, but the furnaces of the mill and the prison are deliberately interchangeable, and there’s certainly no refuge to be found in the low amber light of the cluttered family home or the shadows of the dingy local bar.
There’s little refuge to be found anywhere, as it happens. Though it meanders, Out of the Furnace strips away everything it can from its anti-heroes, pushing them through an ever-narrower tunnel of diminishing options. Enough grace notes are planted about Russell’s complex relationship with his brother; still, the standard final act face-off ends up ringing a little empty when set against the more nuanced first half. But Bale and Affleck bring their full conviction to bear, and for a character study that follows them with so much sympathy, that’s just about enough.