Movie Review: Out of the Furnace

By Phillip Thompson

There is no point in Out of the Furnace when the movie turns sinister. It starts out that way, and stays there the entire time. It opens with a profane, hillbilly-scruffy Woody Harrelson demeaning his drive-in date with a hot dog, then viciously beating down the fellow the next car over for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong.

With a look and feel that may be too reminiscent (for some) of The Deer Hunter, this is a movie that is supposed to be about revenge, but tries to be more. And it succeeds, up to a point. In the end, it may be a movie more about the desolation of the soul than anything else.

Christian Bale and Casey Affleck star as brothers in a Pennsylvania mill town that has seen better days -- about 30 years ago. Bale's Russell is in many ways the quintessential first-born son: he has a job, a steady girl. He takes care of his dying father. He loves his family. Affleck's Rodney goes in the other direction. A soldier, he is scarred (in every way) by too many tours in Iraq. "There are so many things in my head, but I can't get them out," he writes in a letter to Russell. Disenchanted and drifting, he can't, or won't, get a job and runs afoul of a local outlaw (a beautifully understated Willem Dafoe), to whom he owes a great deal of money. To repay his debts, Rodney takes up bareknuckle fighting -- and digs himself in deeper by not throwing a fight to square up with his debtors. Inevitably, Rodney finds himself in the ring in the rural hills of New Jersey, where Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson) proves to be a psychotic, meth-fueled evil-doer. When Rodney gets cross-wise with DeGroat, big brother Russell again takes care of his family, but this time with the most extreme of consequences.

Bale's performance is nothing short of brilliant. And it is through his portrayal of Russell that we see how alone a man can be even when surrounded by loved ones. In several scenes, he seeks redemption for his sins, yet he comes off as a man of a sort of blue-collar honor (even after a prison term for a drunk-driving accident). Russell carries the weight of his family, and his deteriorating town and lifestyle and his sins, on his back without complaint. And when his former girlfriend tells him, after his release from prison, that she is pregnant by another man, his desolation is complete in one shattering scene. This desolation soon turns into a vengeance that Bale makes both believable and honorable.

The other cast members put in tremendous performances as well. Woody Harrelson may well be Evil Fucker of the Year for 2013 with his no-holds-barred portrayal of DeGroat. Given the character is an amoral crank-cooking/selling/using redneck kingpin, Harrelson goes all the way -- right up to the very end. Forest Whitaker plays the small part of the local police chief (and impregnator of Russell's former girlfriend), but plays small big without taking over the screen. Affleck is solid and brings an emotional intensity that borders on savage. Zoe Saldana shows she has the chops to stand and deliver opposite a powerhouse like Bale. Sam Shepard is almost a cameo, but provides a silent gravitas, much as he did earlier in this year in Mud.

The movie is not without its flaws. The first two acts are long for a revenge tale, and by the time the too-short third act begins, Bale's well-honed righteousness saps the expected savagery of the vengeance. And, already, some critics have howled that the movie too closely resembles The Deer Hunter. True, the hunting scene seems lifted directly from that movie, but beyond that the resemblance is faint. This isn't a happy Hollywood story where the hero blows a bunch of shit up before getting the babe at the end. It's gritty, dark, and at times evokes a horror movie. There are damn few people with a conscience in this movie, and the characters are real people dealing with real circumstances the best way they know how. And sometimes best intentions don't count for shit. Out of the Furnace, as the name implies, is about desperate, despondent people trying to get out of their own personal furnaces before life burns them up. In that, it succeeds.

Phillip Thompson, a native of East Mississippi, is a combat veteran and former journalist, among other things. His published works include one non-fiction book (Into the Storm: A U.S. Marine in the Persian Gulf War) and three novels (Enemy Within, A Simple Murder and Deep Blood). His short fiction has appeared in The Review and the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. He lives in Virginia. Find him online at his blog, Pulpwood Fiction.