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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience. MOBILE version |
. "Out of the Furnace"

A gritty and tragic character film that I think I've seen before. Could be echoes of "Justified" on TV, but other films depicting an Appalachian strain of inbred crazies, as well. It's with a certain amount of dread that one of two brothers takes us on a downward spiral to the ugly hinterland of the lawless mountains that reek of doom for strangers.

Two brothers, Russell Baze (Christian Bale, "The Dark Knight Rises"), the elder, and Rodney, Jr. (Casey Affleck, "Gone Baby Gone") are opposites in their approach to dealing with economic depression and scrapping out a living in Braddock, PA where the Carrie Furnace is the economic magnet for the able-bodied in the Rust Belt community. Russell is content to take up steel mill work as his father lies dying from it; to love his girlfriend Lena Taylor (Zoe Saldana, "Star Trek Into Darkness"); and to protect his restless brother as best he can.

Which is a tall order. Rodney has returned from his third tour in Iraq a rebellious man. Working at the mill just isn't in his scope of acceptability. Gambling is more to his liking even as his debts to John Petty (Willem Dafoe, "John Carter"), the owner of the bar and betting parlor, are rising. Too much extended credit. Rodney just can't get a break.

Petty, himself, is in debt as well, and his debtor is of a far more violent nature in demanding his money than Petty is. You just don't want to be indebted to the crazed Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, "The Hunger Games") if you value your life and limb. Rodney, overhearing DeGroat's threats to Petty, sees an opportunity in that situation.

Degroat is the main man in a drug and boxing enterprise for the local hillbillies and pretty much makes the law in his part of the woods. Rodney asks Petty to set up fights for him in local events. Petty sees money in that and agrees, so long as Rodney is willing to go down in the fixed, bare-nuckle street brawls. But, when Rodney takes punishment from a competitor, his PTSD circuits flare up and he goes berserk, failing to throw the bout as he agreed to do.

Things go from bad to worse until, one morning when Rodney, whose boxing career has finally led him to his first fight at Degroat's, failed to return home. Russell is faced with an untenable decision that comes down to staying out of prison versus seeking justice. Joining his frightful journey into the lair of the devil is his uncle "Red" (Sam Shepard, "Safe House").

Bale is outstanding in his contained portrayal of a man with unassailable conviction and moral strength despite his circumstances. It affords us the company of someone whose ingrained decency is constantly tested by terrible breaks that exposes a spine of steel when fate turns against him. He conveys a highly emotional character who, despite terrible odds, is the heart of the film with his quiet reliability. For Bale, a very nice, naturalistic portrayal on a more tempered scale than his bigger-than-life usual. I've always wanted to tell him that, yes, he can do it and that he'd be so interesting dialed back.

Director Scott Cooper's story moves with a strong sense of realism, featuring a moral ambivalence recognizable as true to life. Thus, we see another man who defies stereotype: Dafoe's John Petty, a complex man of questionable principle who tempers his criminal business activities with kind and, even, paternal concern for the vet who owes him more than the boy can pay.

Harrelson may not be the scariest and most ruthless villain of such scenarios, but he's up there, and the drama is the better for his ability to convey psychopathic disregard for life. This builds high tension for the inevitable confrontation.

It's an actor's film, and it shows in the consistent level of full out engagement. Zoe Saldana as Russell's lover Lena Taylor plays off Bale's intense struggle within the insoluble dilemma they find themselves in. Sam Shepard is steadily and sparely the image of no-quarter-given support. Affleck makes the most of an incendiary catalyst role. The chemistry between Bale and Affleck is another score in their, and the film's, favor.

This is also art film territory for which much praise is warranted. Grey clouds of ash spew from the furnaces as a leitmotif for what people breathe and the dead-end possiblities of life here. Textures framed by the lens of cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi are shadowed and raw, conveying the noxious atmosphere of dark destinies.

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                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Christian Bale and Casey Affleck
Brotherly differences.

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