Americas dying Rust Belt towns and the desperate people living in them are at the core of director Scott Coopers (Crazy Heart) second feature, which works better as atmosphere than drama. Beautifully shot in and around the depressed town of Braddock, Pa. briefly famous a few years back thanks to a series of Go Forth Levis ads Out of the Furnace is generally well acted by a top-notch cast, but a bit weak on the storytelling side.
Christian Bale stars as Russell Baze, a steelworker whose Iraq veteran brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) cant seem to find a place in society, and is earning money by engaging in illegal bare-knuckle fights promoted by local bar owner John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Desperate for cash, Rodney convinces Petty to set up a big money fight organized by New Jersey slimeball Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), in which Rodney will earn big bucks if he takes a dive.
When Rodney fails to return from the fight in New Jerseys Ramapo mountains, Russell sets out to find him. Not entirely trusting the investigative efforts of local sheriff Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker), who is dating Lena Taylor (Zoe Saldana), Russells former girlfriend, Russell and his dad (Sam Shepard) drive to Ramapo to track Rodney down.
In this depressed and violent atmosphere, the fact that Out of the Furnace will end on a downbeat note no spoilers here is practically a forgone conclusion. And this sense of predictability is only one of the films problems. A section involving Russells imprisonment for vehicular homicide doesnt advance the story very much, given that Rodney is still messed up when Russell is released, and Russell easily gets his old job back. Lena has left Russell for Wesley in the interim, but Saldanas part is so small shes only in three scenes the character almost seems irrelevant.
The real sticking point, however, is Harrelsons role. Degroat is a character so nasty, mean-spirited and violent, so utterly one-dimensional in every way, its as if he were a spawn of the Devil. Its a dreadfully unsubtle role, matched by an equally unsubtle, eyeball-popping, steam-coming-out-of-every-orifice performance. Harrelson has done much better.
Coopers film wants to say something about the options Americas industrial decline and the current economic downturn have left for all too many of its citizens. Yet in an almost delicious irony, that story is told not in the films overheated dramatic moments, but in Masanobu Takayanagis evocative cinematography. All those shots of abandoned properties, boarded-up storefronts, and decaying factories say all you need to know about the desperation of the Rodney Bazes of the world.