Puffed with self-importance, “Out of the Furnace” wants to be a movie that speaks to America’s riven soul – a “Deer Hunter” for our time. Writer-director Scott Cooper, who made a marvelous debut a few years back with “Crazy Heart,” has gone full serioso here, but what he is aiming for and what he hits are miles apart.
Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, a steel mill worker in Braddock, Pa. whose brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), is a troubled Iraq war veteran. The film, before it jumps ahead, opens in 2008 during the Obama ascendancy. Russell ends up doing jail time for a fatal car accident, and Rodney is stop-lossed for another tour of duty.
Russell, out of prison, can’t quite accept that his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) has taken up with the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker). Rodney, instead of following in the heavy footsteps of his brother and father in the mills, is making chump change on the local bare-knuckle boxing circuit. He wants a bigger score – not always doable since his warrior instincts kick in whenever he’s supposed to take a dive.
Rodney gets involved with an ultra-scurvy bunch of promoters from the New Jersey backwoods headed by Woody Harrelson’s DeGroat, a man who makes Willem Dafoe (who is also in the picture) seem like Don Knotts.
The recession-era hardships of the working class, the hopelessness and anomie, plus the derangements of the returning vets, all get a superficial airing here. But Cooper doesn’t make much of a case for why the derangements in this movie are an expression of our age’s ills. Rodney’s hair-trigger rages and self-destructiveness would appear to long predate his war experiences, and life in the steel mills has always been grievous. And bad guys like DeGroat are everpresent. This is fire-breathing melodrama masquerading as social commentary. Grade: C+ (Rated R for strong violence, language and drug content.)