Rocking a scraggly patch of facial hair, a rotating wardrobe of sleeveless tees, and a perpetual sneer, Woody Harrelson cuts a mean figure in Out Of The Furnace. Like, really mean: His character, a ruthless New Jersey psychopath named Harlan DeGroat, is introduced in the opening scene, doing with a hotdog what Matthew McConaughey did with fried chicken in Killer Joe. By starting the movie with this act of showy barbarism, writer-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) stops just short of painting a big target on his villain’s back. The next two hours will be a death march to comeuppance, a feature-length game of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Some might call that fatalism, but here it plays an awful lot like spinning wheels, kicking up lots of muck but going nowhere fast.
Out Of The Furnace turns out to be a predictable, very ordinary retribution story, propped up by slumming A-listers and a gritty veneer of Rust Belt desperation. The film is set mainly in the smoggy, depressed steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, which seems to have as many railroad crossings as street corners and whose gray skies are made grayer by the endless billow of factory fumes. Cooper, a dedicated chronicler of dead-end lives, has a feel for this kind of colorfully colorless environment. But all that smoke and grime can’t disguise the archetypal thinness of his characterizations. He’s dressed down a clichéd genre exercise to look like a bleeding-heart vision of economic despair.
Back in morose serious-guy mode, Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, a Bruce Springsteen song personified. When not working at the old steel mill, or doing hard time for a hard-luck crime, he’s mourning the true love (Zoe Saldana) he lost to the local lawman (Forest Whitaker). Russell’s also got a dying dad and, most problematically, a hothead younger brother, Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck), who can’t seem to stay out of trouble. A bitter war veteran who some saw shit, Rodney boxes to make ends meet, but is too proud to take a dive when he’s supposed to. Chasing a big payout, he coerces his reluctant manager (Willem Dafoe) to get him in with Harrelson’s notorious promoter. As famous last words go, “one last fight” is about as ominous as “one last score.”
Historical-fiction fans could be excused for thinking, at glance, that Cooper had adapted Thomas Bell’s 1941 immigrant saga Out Of This Furnace, which was also set in Braddock. The parallels, while doubtlessly intentional, are misleading: Cooper’s interest in an ailing America is chiefly cosmetic; the struggles of ex-convicts, returning soldiers, and working-class Joes are given cursory treatment, to add a little sociological flavor to the inevitable score-settling badassery. That the movie treats its Pennsylvanians like noble victims of the system, while their dirt-poor Jersey counterparts are basically hillbilly bogeymen, suggests that Cooper’s empathy is regionally specific.
Sometimes resembling a cross between Winter’s Bone and Warrior—but without the stylized language of the former or the male-weepie conviction of the latter—Out Of The Furnace gets by on the commitment of its cast. Bale makes the most of an underwritten part, brooding magnificently until it comes time to get his hands dirty, while Affleck invests his role with his usual volatile vulnerability. Harrelson, meanwhile, turns “candy suckling” into the new “mustache twirling.” He’s the cartoonish and despicable heavy this glorified B-movie deserves. “Am I supposed to be scared of him because he sucks on a lollipop?” Rodney asks, in the film’s most self-aware moment. The answer, of course, is yes, though having a character actually acknowledge the silliness makes it go down a little smoother.