Out of the Furnace takes place in a small Pennsylvania town where generations of men have followed their fathers into grueling, thankless jobs at steel mills. The work is hard and unsatisfying, but its steady and reliable and pays just enough to cover the bills.
Russell (Christian Bale) is making a go of it, spending his days dealing with molten steel and searing heat and caring for his aging father at home. Russells younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), reluctant to follow in the family tradition, enlisted in the Army, where he was rewarded with four tours of duty in Iraq. He returns home in 2008 damaged but still hopeful. Like Russell, hes a bright spirit. But Russell is serving a prison sentence for a tragic accident, their father has passed away and the recession has robbed Rodney of any job prospects. He has hit a dead end.
Scott Cooper, who directed and co-wrote Out of the Furnace, empathizes with people who feel their lives have hit a dead end (his previous film, Crazy Heart, earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar as a washed-up country singer who had given up on himself). These are difficult characters to dramatize if they dont care about themselves, then why should we? and its even harder to keep their stories from becoming downward spirals of woe and despair. But the driving force behind Out of the Furnace is the love between two brothers who will do anything for each other anything because they are all they have left in the world after their dad dies.
Russell is the more level-headed of the two; despite the accident that landed him in jail, hes a responsible, thoughtful man who takes pride in his community. But once hes out of prison, he learns his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) has left him to shack up with the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker), and Rodney has used the help of a small-time bookie (Willem Dafoe) to start competing in an underground fight ring lorded over by a deranged psychopath (Woody Harrelson in scary Natural Born Killers mode). The situation is so dire that in practically any other movie you would check out, fearful of the inevitable tragedy ahead. But Cooper knows how to keep you hooked. He gets small but potent performances from his impressive cast (Sam Shepard plays the brothers uncle), and Bale, operating on a much quieter scale than the operatic Dark Knight pictures, makes you share Russells desperation at trying to do right by those he loves (his brother) and those who no longer love him back (his girlfriend).
Affleck is heartbreaking as the wounded soul whose pride keeps getting in the way of his salvation: Hes the movies tragic heart. But this is ultimately Russells story, played with grace and dignity by Bale, a man who has led his life the way he was supposed to in hopes of simply getting by, until hes forced by honor and duty to resort to the kind of extreme acts that will doom him for life. Sometimes, circumstance overrides logic and civility. Out of the Furnace is a boozy, searing portrait of disenfranchised people trying and not always succeeding to eke out an existence. But the movie celebrates their humanity and struggle makes you share their scalding pain, like molten steel on bare flesh.