Cast: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard
Out of the Furnace is an intense, meandering tale of two brothers navigating their way through a mire of tragic mistakes, moral compromises, lost opportunities, past traumas, and a drably ordinary existence.
Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a worker at a Pennsylvania mill. His life is normal – he has a girlfriend he loves, a family he’s dedicated to, and even though he struggles to make ends meet himself he secretly helps pay off his brother’s gambling debts. He’s a quiet, intense man, resigned to his way of life. His brother, Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck), has seen a couple tours in Iraq and is about to leave on another. He has trouble adjusting to ordinary civilian life and believes he’s owed more than a job in a mill and a weekly paycheck. He’s angry, impulsive, rashly unwise, and always trying desperately to get ahead. However unsatisfactory they may feel their life is at the beginning of the film, they soon come to realize that it can become that much worse.
And it’s not exactly like anyone in the movie is a victim of fortune. Every single event that occurs has a direct cause to effect pattern, put in motion by the unwise choices made by the characters themselves. Russell drives home drunk one night and gets into an accident that kills two people and lands him in prison. By the time he is released, his father has died, his girlfriend has left him, and Rodney is battling inescapable debt and reintegration after his time in Iraq.
In desperation and anger, Rodney has turned to taking dives in underground boxing matches as a way of making money – except he’s not very good at taking those dives, which leaves him deeper in debt. As a final ditch effort, he arranges to fight in a match run by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) – the psychopathic, hillbilly, drug addict, mob boss of the inbred Jersey hills. Suffice to say, things do not go well and Rodney ends up as a missing person. Re-enter Russell, who is so impatient with the local authorities that he immediately decides to search for Rodney and the menacing DeGroat on his own.
The story has a dull, meandering quality – much like the cinematography and color palette – punctuated by compelling and unsettling interactions between the film’s characters. It is, however, somewhat difficult to care about the Baze brothers and what happens to them, partly because they are either too self-interested (Rodney) or too laconically internal (Russell). Bale’s Russell is a man of few words, to be sure, but there is something lifeless about his eyes that belie every feeling he emotes.
It’s as if Russell has numbed himself to life. Even the final moments of the film, when Russell should feel relieved and vindicated, the sigh he lets out has no feeling or meaning behind it. He sighs because it is a physical impulse. He knows the feeling that should come with it, but it doesn’t come – he’s still not alive. Even the extreme dedication he shows to his brother by hunting down DeGroat feels like an empty gesture. In fact, Rodney and DeGroat seem to suffer from the same affliction as Russell, but expressed differently.
Affleck’s Rodney is a livewire looking for an outlet, fighting not just to make a living, but to hurt and be hurt by others – not simply to feel, but to exert his power in a palpable, physical way. The ability to affect the physical world by physical means is a testament to his existence. Harrelson’s DeGroat, on the other hand, is an agent of chaos, a slave to his own sadistic whims. He kills for pleasure, menaces and harms others to prove that, not only does he have power over others, but that they don’t have power over him.
In the end, every character in Out of the Furnace is deeply damaged in one way or another. Whether they’re just going through the motions or displaying escalating behavior, each character seems bound and determined to make a mark on either themselves or the world – even if that mark is made by fire and brimstone. And while each character makes terrible decisions in their own way in an attempt to make this mark, none quite have the same penchant for drastic misjudgment as the Baze boys. Each decision made brings them further down an endless spiral of pain and suffering – and while they may be out of the furnace, where they land is far, far worse.