If you go…
“Out of the Furnace,” rated R
Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars
Running time: 116 minutes
Starring: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoë Saldana and Woody Harrelson.
Now playing at Wildhorse Stadium Cinemas.
You could look at a movie like “Out of the Furnace” and say things only go from bad to worse to rock bottom. Then, once the floor caves in, there’s a new standard for substandard conditions, but that just makes the climb back up all the more important.
Life isn’t fair.
That’s something Braddock, Pa., welder Russell Baze (Christian Bale) has had to learn the hard way, with a simple mistake landing him a stretch in prison and more hardships than he can count. Besides losing time in lockup, he finds fewer people welcoming him to the outside world after he becomes a free man, with his father dead and the love of his life (Zoë Saldana) having moved on without him.
The only person left for Russell is his younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), who’s becoming less and less reliable the deeper he gets into the world of underground bare-knuckle brawls.
Russell’s attempts to get his sibling to pull himself together fall on deaf ears, but when Rodney crosses an unpredictable and volatile crime boss (Woody Harrelson), it’s up to Russell to figure out a plan for justice.
Bale is solid as the man who does his best to lead a righteous life, trying not to let setbacks overwhelm him despite the complete lack of anything positive coming his way. No matter how optimistic you may be, when a freight train of disappointment hits you, it takes all your energy to keep on keeping on.
Affleck is just as good as Russell’s troubled brother, with scars both physical and mental keeping him unbalanced as he tries to forget the horrors of what he’s seen during multiple tours of duty in Iraq. It seems like a lateral move to come home from war only to voluntarily get yourself beaten to a bloody pulp in an illegal fighting ring, but as long as it makes him happy.
It doesn’t, by the way.
Willem Dafoe has a good turn as Rodney’s manager, who keeps trying to convince Rodney to cut his losses and get himself out of the depraved world, but it’s Harrelson who’s unforgettable as the guy who embodies backwoods corruption and — regardless of his own third grade education — seems intent on teaching a lesson to anyone who doesn’t fall in line with his wishes.
There’s despair in the air here so thick you can barely breathe as director Scott Cooper shows us the ennui of the Rust Belt, where the local steel mill is the only decent way to make a living, and of course, it's about to be shut down. Cooper’s directorial debut, “Crazy Heart,” hinted at this kind of small-town weariness, but it’s inescapable in his sophomore feature.
The economic environment is only part of the story though, with the real focus on a man trying to salvage some scrap of the life he knew before it was all destroyed. You can only say “that’s just the way things are” so many times before someone stands up to try to make a difference.
The screenplay by Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby allows for plentiful moments of quiet stoicism that make everyone, especially Bale and Harrelson, powerful when they do speak. Likewise, Dickon Hinchliffe’s twangy musical score and the vocals from Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder on the accompanying song “Release” add to the feeling that you only can push a man so far before he pushes back.
Full of sterling performances and grungy realism, “Out of the Furnace” is one of the year’s best — the reason being that only by falling to our absolute lowest can we appreciate the magnitude of what’s worth fighting for, against whatever odds life throws your way.
Keep on scrappin’.
Andy Bockelman can be reached at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.