“Out of the Furnace” is a sad movie about sad people who have lost the fire in their lives. It’s a slow-burning film with great, naturalistic performances and an evocative sense of place, but it doesn’t generate quite enough heat to truly crackle.
The furnace of the title is literal: Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works at a steel mill in rural Pennsylvania, the same one his father worked at. But it’s about to close, leaving him, like so many working class men, with no direction and no way to sustain himself. It doesn’t help that he’s already gone to prison for killing a child in a drunken-driving accident, nor that his former flame, Lena (Zoe Saldana), has left him for the local police chief, Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker).
Other young men, like his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), are already burned out. Rodney has returned home from fighting in Iraq, full of rage and despair but without a target for his anger. Rather than work at the mill, he continues to fight, now in bare-knuckle brawls run by a local small-time criminal, John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Rodney owes money, but off-track gambling and thrown fights run by Petty aren’t paying the bills (he has a hard time actually throwing the fights). So he begs Petty to take him up to backwoods New Jersey, where a tougher breed of rural outlaws, led by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), run underground fights with bigger purses.
What happens next offers few surprises: The local hoods get more than they bargained for when they get mixed up with DeGroat’s crew, and a situation that started out unfortunate eventually turns tragic.
Most of the movie is set against the backdrop of Rust Belt Pennsylvania, which, along with a mid-film hunting sequence, appear intended to frame the film as a spiritual successor to Michael Cimino’s ‘70’s-era touchstone, “The Deer Hunter.”
As in “The Deer Hunter,” director Scott Cooper imbues the state’s small industrial town with a pointed sense of loss and decline. It’s a place that no longer has any use or purpose; like the movie’s blue-collar characters, its time is over.
The movie’s setting, and its place in time, give the movie’s title a metaphorical meaning as well: the Baze brothers are also coming out of the furnace of the recession, which decimated the local economy and their livelihoods. We first meet Russell as Barack Obama is being elected president; the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s speech praising Mr. Obama is shown in the background on a bar TV. The movie quickly jumps ahead to the present.
That gives the movie its tentative political subtext, about the forgotten and dead-end lives of working class Americans in the midst of economic decay. The choice to show Kennedy, long a hero of a certain type of factory-employed blue collar worker, seems meant to suggest the end of an era.
But “Out of the Furnace” is too beholden to the conventions of its familiar crime narrative to say much about that era, or the economy, or anything. Instead, it sticks to saying that its characters’ lives are sad. That’s a start, but it’s not enough.