‘Out of the Furnace’ (2013) review: Forged, strength with weakness

Casey Affleck goes bare-knuckle in an illegal boxing match in a scene from "Out of the Furnace." (Photo credit: Relativity Media)

Casey Affleck goes bare-knuckle in an illegal boxing match in a scene from “Out of the Furnace.” (Photo credit: Relativity Media)

‘Out of the Furnace’ has highs, lows in gritty drama

Violent and moving, ‘Out of the Furnace’ strives to reminds us of simple effects: Family, community, bonds forged through life experiences. With a stellar ensemble and searing dramatics, “Out of the Furnace” goes a long way in latching us to its story and characters. Though some weaknesses surface, the apt direction of Scott Cooper serves more than enough to remedy the inconsistencies.

With an all-star cast filling both major and supporting roles, “Out of the Furnace” tells us a dirty, riveting tale of tragedy and hurt. The Baze brothers, Russell (a fantastic Christian Bale) and Rodney (an under-appreciated Casey Affleck), have taken two different paths in life, with the backdrop of the Rust Belt’s economic malaise playing large in the town of Braddock, Pa.

Eldest Russell is making the best of a meager situation: He works hard in the local steel mill. He wants a family with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana). He makes visits to his dying father. But fate intervenes, and Russell lands in jail. Upon release, he discovers younger brother Rodney drowning in debt (gambling) and fighting in illegal boxing matches in to pay off what he owes.

Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from four tours in Iraq, the veteran is unreliable and ill-matched for this style of living, and it shows in every fight.

The film opens with a night at the drive-in gone wrong. We quickly learn we don’t want to tango with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). But you know we will. Especially when Rodney becomes connected to DeGroat, who deals meth and runs the illegal boxing matches.

Harrelson’s Harlan ranks among the lowest among us, closer to a warlord than a crime boss. Entrenched in the mountains of New Jersey, away from the eyes of the law, he wields his power and influence to take what he wants.

But it’s bartender Petty (Willem Defoe) who introduces Rodney to DeGroat, against his better judgment. The bartender, like anyone worth knowing, hovers the line between good guy and criminal. Immensely likable, his sense of ethics (which is not to say he’s particularly ethical) will appeal to most.

Unlike Harlan. Harrelson, already gifted at portraying chaos and menace, is obviously giddy with his role, taking being unnerving to a whole new level. You will find yourself wanting Russell, who is trying to locate Rodney after he goes missing, to do away with DeGroat, consequences be damned.

One complaint: When Rodney goes missing, so does some of the nuance, the sense of pride, honor and defiance. The movie becomes too much of a cop drama, and it doesn’t handle the transition well. It falls into familiar territory — and not in a good way.

Scott’s “Out of the Furnace” shows us the director has a natural capacity to work with talented actors and bring out their strengths. (Reference his “Crazy Heart” and the Oscar-nominated performance of Jeff Bridges.) His characters range from graceful to dangerous, and it feels natural. It’s a gift.

In the end, “Out of the Furnace” is about the ties that bond, connections established that are nearly unbreakable. But the undercurrents also strike at you. It’s also about men wanting to break free of the cycle of generational trappings, taking whatever fleeting actions they can .

It’s familiar, yes, but that’s because it’s a story we all know, a story of trial and possible redemption. And we all know just how sweet redemption can be.

Three sooty stars out of five.

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