“Out of the Furnace” has a great ominous opening at a drive-in during a showing of the even more ominous “Midnight Meat Train” (2008). Among the patrons is Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a nasty piece of work who proceeds to bat his date around and then viciously beat the good Samaritan who was foolish enough to interfere. (Are there really still drive-ins? Even in the backwaters of the New Jersey Appalachians?)
The events in this splash-panel intro have no direct relation to the rest of the film; they serve only to start things off with a bang and to make sure we know that DeGroat is Not a Nice Guy.
We quickly switch to our hero, Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a steel mill employee in the western Pennsylvania town of Braddock (site of Tony Buba's excellent 1988 documentary “Lightning Over Braddock: A Rustbowl Fantasy”). On the surface, his life doesn't seem so bad: Russell is a solid worker, and Lena (Zoe Saldana), his girlfriend, is loving and tender and, well, a dead ringer for Zoe Saldana.
On the downside, after a lifetime in the mills, his dad is dying, and his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) has just been called up for yet another tour of duty in Iraq. Rodney is not the sharpest tack in town, which, in Braddock, would be a low bar to hurdle in any case. He also has a gambling problem, and Russell has to keep paying off his debts to local vice boss John Petty (Willem Dafoe).
We are just getting to know Russell when something unexpected and tragic happens, landing him in prison. When he emerges four years later, his already impoverished town has only grown more so. The economy has tanked, the mill is likely to shut down, and Dad has died. On top of that, Iraq has taken a heavy toll on Rodney. Still saddled with debts, he's taken to competitive bare-knuckle fighting — a sport run locally by Petty — to stay alive. That leads him to doing business with DeGroat, never a good idea.
“Out of the Furnace” is crammed with Oscar winners (Bale, Forest Whitaker) and nominees (Affleck, Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard), half of whom don't show up much. Bale frets, Affleck mewls and mumbles, and Harrelson just cranks up the scary. I didn't believe Affleck as a tough guy in “Gone Baby Gone,” and I don't believe him here.
But it's all to very little point. “Out of the Furnace” may strive for down-and-out realism, but who wants to inhabit that tedious, depressing reality? There is nothing fresh in the story or characters; they're doing a revival of a million other stories. The end may suggest redemption, but the mood is still fatalistic and despairing.
Oddly enough, the best aspect of the production works against the film's general tone: Masanobu Takayanagi's cinematography is gorgeous, almost ostentatiously so. It feels like it's in the wrong movie — surely a better one. For better or worse, the lighting has more texture and depth than the characters and the events.
--ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on "FilmWeek" on KPCC-FM (89.3).