Actors bring heart to Out of the Furnace

by Mark Burger

In Out of the Furnace, the intensity of the cast and the convincing physical depiction of an ailing blue-collar burg in Pennsylvania’s “rust belt” are enough to overlook a story that isn’t so much lean as thin.

As he proved in his 2008 feature debut Crazy Heart, for which Jeff Bridges won an Oscar (long overdue), director Scott Cooper gives his actors a lot of room in which to maneuver. Christian Bale and Casey Affleck play, respectively, Russell and Rodney, hardluck siblings in a similarly hard-luck town.

Russell has just completed a stint in prison and Rodney, a four-tour Army veteran, is gambling away what little money he earns — usually in an underground fighting ring.

Each brother is painfully aware that he has no prospects, but Rodney intends to go out swinging in a high-stakes tournament run by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a psychopathic meth mogul (from New Jersey, no less!). Rodney does not find redemption, only an end to his suffering, but the vengeful Russell believes that maybe he can achieve some form of redemption, both for himself and his family.

Once the foundation of the story is established, as well as its inevitable trajectory, the film grinds along toward its equally inevitable conclusion, propelled solely by the actors. In this case, they’re enough. Bale and Affleck acquit themselves well, with Harrelson a suitably despicable heavy. Willem Dafoe is a neighborhood bar owner whose shady sideline operations cause all the trouble, and Sam Shepard, who’s everywhere these days and himself emblematic of rough-hewn Americana, lends craggy dignity to the role of Russell and Rodney’s uncle. Veteran character actor Tom Bower enjoys a sizable role as Dafoe’s bartender. Even Zoe Saldana, in a thankless role as Russell’s ex-girlfriend and Forest Whitaker as her current beau, the local police chief, manage to make impressions.

Thanks to Masanobu Takayanagi’s evocative cinematography, there’s a palpable sense of hopelessness and desperation, of lost lives and lost community. There’s a real sense of who these characters are and where they come from.