To pay off debts, ex-soldier Rodney Baze Jr. (Affleck) takes up bare-knuckle boxing, where he comes into contact with mobster Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson).
Writer-director Scott Cooper’s second film, after the Jeff Bridges music drama Crazy Heart, is an ambitious portrait of crime and class in contemporary America.
The Baze family represent the very bottom of the squeezed lower-middle, regular working guys who have tried to do the right thing and been shafted. Hard-grafting Russell (Christian Bale) spends time in prison for drunk driving and ends up losing his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), then goes back to a mill he knows will be closed down soon. Just back from Iraq, brother Rodney (Affleck) struggles to cope with the horrors in his memory and is drawn deeper into a murky world of backwoods crime. Rather than kick against the bankers and politicians who might be obvious targets for blame, the film sets the brothers against someone even lower down the scale — fiendish, amoral, mountain-man crime lord Harlan DeGroat (Harrelson), who is unreachable by conventional law enforcement.
This blue collar versus white trash conflict is unusual, but unfortunately little else in the script is. It has an outstanding cast of intense, modern-day Method actors projecting tattooed male angst and economic desperation, with the three leads strongly supported by the likes of Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepard. However, Saldana gets stuck with a symbolic angel role duller even than the one Penélope Cruz has in The Counsellor, making Out Of The Furnace a lot less biting than crime dramas such as Winter’s Bone or Frozen River, which all have similar milieu but give women complex roles, too.
Despite the grim vision of post-industrial America, where the only use for a factory is as a rusted-out arena for brutal illegal (and rigged) prize-fights, this boils down to the sort of decent-man-driven-to-become-a-vigilante movie Charles Bronson made by the half-dozen in the 1970s. Harrelson’s human vermin performance as a simply hateful bad guy tips this into melodrama, though the glacial pace wouldn’t do for a drive-in ass-kicking movie.
A quality production, with awards-bid performances from Bale and Affleck to prove it... but, as signalled by the curiously unmemorable title, it flounders while trying to come up with a story to embody the things it wants to say about the sorry state of modern America. Worth seeing, but a near-miss.