By Muhammad Muzammal
Once a material of high prosperity and wealth, steel has declined in value over the past decades. Steel mill factories, like the towns which harbor them, are on the poor end of society, crumbling away like a speck in the dust. One of these towns is Braddock, Pa., a small community that is part of the "rust belt," a term that signifies a falling industry and population. Braddock is also the backdrop of director Scott Cooper's new film, "Out of the Furnace," a quietly intense revenge thriller.
The story chronicles the tragic circumstances of steel mill worker Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a diligent individual. Russell lives with his insecure brother, Rodney (played by Casey Affleck), a soldier who is called upon several times to participate in numerous tours around Iraq. This character also provides significant contrast to Baze.
The film shows the inner lives of the Baze family, who in this instance, can represent the entire lower class of Braddock. There are no rich characters; instead some are poorer than others. The recreational activities for these people don't include going to the movies or even a restaurant. Instead, they hunt or go to church, primitive compared to how others live today.
Contrary to Russell working a regular job, Rodney earns his cash unconventionally. He fights in an underground group where two random, shirtless strangers wrestle. The winner receives a cash prize. Rodney goes to fight for one of the most notorious characters in recent movie history: Harlan DeGroate (Woody Harrelson).
DeGroate is a misogynist and sociopath. The first scene in the film shows him punching another man for defending a woman he just hit. DeGroate, played impressively by Harrelson, is vile and evil. He kills without remorse and insults anyone who dares to speak to him, including Rodney.
DeGroate is responsible for the deaths of major characters. This sets off Russell, who goes to DeGroate to kill him for all the horrid destruction he has caused. "Out of The Furnace" therefore, contains a fundamental battle between good and evil.
Russell is an ex-convict, but has good intentions. He is humbled by his former jail life and he is grateful to be alive. DeGroate, on the other hand, is ruthless and motivated by violence, never sympathizing with his opponents. The acting of Bale and Harrelson is tense and extraordinary. The loneliness that Bale instills in Russell is comparable to the evil demeanor that Harrelson gives to DeGroate.
The film benefits from a powerful, interpretative ending. A major character is seen sitting in the same manner that Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone does at the end of "The Godfather: Part II." Like Corleone, this character has just escaped a prison sentence. Instead, he has to deal with the consequences of his violence and is in a prison within himself. His guilt makes “Out of the Furnace” a much more rewarding experience.
But not all is invigorating. "Out of the Furnace" is not an entirely compelling film, but comes very close to greatness. The largest problem is its script, which is disorganized. Some sequences seem more like random events than meaningful scenes.
There's a chaotic sequence where Russell and his uncle, Red (Sam Shepherd), set out to find DeGroate. The scene is unnecessary. Russell and Red never find Harlan and the movie wastes a precious 20 minutes in showing their failed journey.
The subplot of the relationship between Lena, played by Zoe Saldana, and Russell is touching but never resolved. Lena separated from Russell, and she becomes pregnant with her current boyfriend Chief Wesley’s child. However, there are still feelings between Russell and Lena that add another emotional layer to the material. By the film’s end, we don’t know if they end up with each other or are still separate.
Yet, “Out of The Furnace,” with a mixture of strong and memorable performances and subject matter, can be forgiven for its choppy editing and dull script. Like the people of Braddock, I’ll settle for anything enriching and “Out of the Furnace,” better than most modern day thrillers, is satisfying enough.