Director Scott Cooper’s follow-up to his 2009 film Crazy Heart, which starred Jeff Bridges in an Academy Award-winning performance as a lone-wolf country singer, is about another kind of American masculinity on the ropes. Out of the Furnace has distinct echoes of Michael Cimino’s post-Vietnam blue-collar drama The Deer Hunter, both in its milieu and its focus on the after-effects of battle. The story follows mill-worker Russell (Christian Bale) and Iraq vet Rodney (Casey Affleck), struggling to survive in the American rust belt of Pennsylvania and to avoid the downward suck of crime and violence, represented by Woody Harrelson as a hillbilly underworld kingpin; if the downbeat plot is depressingly familiar, it’s partly salvaged by the quality of the performances.
The film begins with a brief interlude at a drive-in theatre, where Harrelson, in the driver’s seat, opens the car door to vomit, before returning to his whisky bottle. When his girlfriend raises a note of concern, he goes on a rampage, assaulting her and, when a stranger attempts to intervene, beating him senseless. The explosive set-up is an overture for what’s to come.
We shift to Braddock, Pa., the home of the Baze family, where things are tough and about to get worse: the father is dying. The responsible son, Russell, works at the mill and lives with his schoolteacher girlfriend (Zoe Saldana). Meanwhile, Russell’s baby brother, Rodney, is busy getting drunk and running up gambling debts around town.
The time is the summer of 2008: Russell is knocking back a beer at the local bar, while Edward Kennedy introduces the victorious Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic convention. After Russell makes a payment on his brother’s debt to a local bar-owner/loan shark (Willem Dafoe), he accepts a shot of whisky. Apparently it tips him over the limit: A few moments later while driving home, he smashes into a car backing out of a hidden lane. The result is a passenger’s death and a jail sentence for Russell.
When Russell emerges from prison, an unspecified time later, his father is dead, his girlfriend has left him for the local police chief (Forest Whitaker) and Rodney has started to participate in illegal bare-knuckle fights for cash, another way to take money from the blue-collar gamblers. Rodney wants to fight in bigger matches, run by a family of New Jersey drug-dealing hillbillies (a disparaging depiction of the mixed-race group known as the Ramapough Mountain Indians). The organizer of the fights is named Harlan DeGroat, the out-of-control man we met in the opening drive-in scene.
Harrelson’s instinct to play DeGroat as a dandyish, chops-licking psycho is probably astute, inasmuch as Out of the Furnace needs a jolt of pure animal energy to raise it out of the doldrums of sad barroom stares and rusted factories, but it’s at a cost to authenticity. Like the other characters here, Harrelson looks a little too gym-fit and handsome for his hardscrabble, dissolute life. His performance underscores how much the film relies on acting with a capital A, the kind of showy performances that weaken the sense of authenticity. That also applies to Bale, begging plaintively for his girlfriend to take him back, or Affleck, wild-eyed and ranting about the horrors he experienced in Iraq.
There are just a few too many scenes of men in goatees squaring their shoulders and eyeballing each other in threat-downs, which are part of Cooper’s fascination with the codes of masculinity. Particularly heavy-handed is a sequence when the film cross-cuts between a ceremonially solemn deer-hunting sequence, in which Russell goes out in the woods with his uncle (Sam Shepard), and a fight scene with Rodney trading blows with an opponent in the midst a crowd of rabid strangers.
Sometimes Cooper’s distinctly old-fashioned brand of emotional sincerity works, as it did in Crazy Heart, especially when he shows the gap between men’s hard shells and their inner vulnerability. Sometimes, though, his reliance on archetypal devices – the brother’s keeper plot, for example – feels numbingly familiar. In the melodramatic showdown with Russell and DeGroat, the progression of events has less to do with inescapable social forces than rusty dramatic conventions: To paraphrase King Lear, as flies to wanton boys are the characters to their screenwriter gods.