Christian Bale as Russell Baze in Out of the Furnace (photo by Kerry Hayes/Relativity Media)
You wouldn’t expect a revenge thriller from the director of 2009’s Crazy Heart. But if you got one, you’d expect it to be as grittily atmospheric as Out of the Furnace. Co-written and directed by Scott Cooper, the tale unfolds against the backdrop of an Appalachian Pennsylvania steel town filled with grimy poverty and despair. It’s here that Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works extra shifts at the mill in hopes of building a life with girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana). Meanwhile, family keeps demanding his attention. His father is dying, and his brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), keeps piling up gambling debts. Warm-hearted and nurturing to a fault, Russell tries to protect Rodney from his own mistakes until a traffic accident changes everything. Russell ends up in prison and doesn’t get out until Rodney—now a former soldier and current bare-knuckle fighter—is in three times as much trouble as he was before. All this sounds like the makings of a touching family drama, but Cooper never lets us forget where it’s going. Before the credits even roll, we’ve already gotten an eyeful of the evil that’s lying in wait for the Bazes. Its name is Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), and he may be the meanest, scariest drug fiend to hit the silver screen since Dennis Hopper sniffed nitrous oxide in 1986’s Blue Velvet. DeGroat is so mean and scary, in fact, that it’s hard to understand why Rodney is so eager to cross him despite warnings from John Petty (Willem Dafoe), a crime-dabbling bar owner who knows him all too well. Either Rodney has a death wish or he has a chronic case of the stupids. But the reality, of course, is that he’s simply a pawn in a melodramatic plot whose sole purpose is to turn the peaceful Russell into a vengeance-seeking vigilante. Along the way to its preordained ending, Out of the Furnace manages to throw us some unexpected curves while building effective moments of suspense. Some of the most suspenseful arise when Russell and intrepid Uncle Red (Sam Shepard) venture into DeGroat’s stomping grounds in backwoods New Jersey. There’s also a hefty amount of brutality, including scenes of the illegal bare-knuckle fighting that brings Rodney into DeGroat’s dangerous sphere of influence. Thankfully, though, Cooper mostly avoids graphic bloodletting. Instead, the focus is on the aforementioned atmosphere and lots of exceptional acting. Bale’s Russell is the epitome of careworn kindness, just as Harrelson’s DeGroat is the epitome of explosive danger. Affleck also shines as the hot-tempered Rodney, while Dafoe’s Petty is a believable combination of criminality and decency. Of all the cast members, only Saldana has moments that don’t ring true. If Cooper doesn’t seem like the right director to make a revenge thriller, that’s probably because he isn’t. The machinery is a bit too obvious, and the payoff isn’t as satisfying as it should be. But he sure does treat us to some fine acting along the way. Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)