Although Out of the Furnace takes place just a few years back in this new millennium, Scott Cooper's solemn, blood-soaked drama about brothers and broken dreams feels like it's of some different, ancient time. The smokestacks of old industry are exhaling their last gray breaths, the big cars rattle and heave. The soldiers returning home could have seen action in Vietnam, or the South Pacific, or even the trenches of World War I.
But Rodney Baze Jr., the sinewy, sunken-eyed veteran played with haunting intensity by Casey Affleck, is coming home to Braddock, in western Pennsylvania, from a last tour in Iraq. His older brother, Russell (Christian Bale), works in the mill, like their dad before them. But Rodney can't find his way back into the rhythms of everyday life. Instead, he fights in illegal bare-knuckle matches to make money - he can take down opponents twice his size. His rage runs like an engine. It roars.
Cooper, who steered Jeff Bridges through his Oscar-winning turn in Crazy Heart, gets fiercely committed performances from just about everyone in Out of the Furnace. Bale, as the quiet, steady Baze sibling, is trying to be the family anchor - their father is dying, their mother long gone. You see him waking alongside Lena (Zoe Saldana), who works at a daycare, and you see a glimpse of peace, of possibility.
But there's no room for peace, or promise, here: Cooper opens his riveting Rust Belt noir at a drive-in movie theater (another relic), where a wildman meth dealer and fight promoter, Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), is on a date. It's not the kind of date anybody would want to be on, and it ends badly for the woman, and for the couple in the next car over who come to her aid.
DeGroat, of course, resurfaces. When Rodney decides to do "one last fight" before settling down and taking a regular job, it's at DeGroat's backwoods fight club. Rodney heads up there (to the mountains of New Jersey! - who knew the Garden State could match the Ozarks for hillbilly squalor?), and, well, he doesn't come back the next day, as the note he left behind said.
With echoes of The Deer Hunter, and with melancholy and menace hanging in the air, Out of the Furnace is never less than gripping, even when the plot, heading to its inevitable, and violent, conclusion, strains credulity. Harrelson, tattooed, earringed, sucking on lollipops, and shooting off sinister smiles, embodies coldblooded craziness.
Willem Dafoe, as Petty, the local bar owner and fight promoter, is hustling and squirrely and still, somehow, sympathetic. And Forest Whitaker is the local law enforcement man. It's a small town, Braddock, so Chief Wesley Barnes knows the Bazes well, and knows Lena, Russell's girl, too.
Everyone's connected. And the connections are fraying, falling apart, as retribution looms. No fun here.
Out of the Furnace *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Scott Cooper. With Casey Affleck, Christian Bale, Willem Dafoe, Woody Harrelson, and Zoe Saldana. Distributed by Relativity Media.
Running time: 1 hour, 56 mins.
Parent's guide: R (violence, profanity, drugs, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters