Scott Cooper's "Out of the Furnace" is the story of two brothers who through outside circumstances end up committing life-changing actions. While what they do is intriguing, it's how Cooper looks at the forces that have shaped their lives that makes the movie so compelling.
The film is set in an economically depressed area of steel country in Pennsylvania. Hope — like the factory that once made this a thriving community — has all but shut down. This leaves those still clinging to the promises of a brighter future looking for a solution.
For Rodney Baze Jr. (Casey Affleck), the answer looked to be through military service. Instead of being his savior, his time of service emotionally scarred him so deeply that he no longer cares about anything — even his own salvation.
His brother, Russell (Christian Bale), has the last remnant of his positive future ripped away by an accident. He emerges from this ordeal with a determination to rebound despite living in a world bent on his destruction.
Their lives reach a tipping point when Rodney gets involved with underground fighting. The line between putting his face and body on the line to obtain fortune or as an escape from a world he no longer trusts becomes blurred by all of the blood and sweat. It reaches a climax when Rodney agrees to one last fight promoted by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a human answer to a rabid dog.
Cooper has created fascinating characters, especially in the most transforming work by Harrelson since "Natural Born Killers." The opening sequence that shows DeGroat's complete disregard for human life is both a harbinger of the pain and suffering to come plus a personification of what the world is doing to these people in the dying community.
Harrelson's not to be outdone by Bale and Affleck. Bale manages to find the finite line between a man oppressed and a man distressed. His is the life with the most to lose and when the fall comes, the spiraling journey down is portrayed with unblinking honesty.
Affleck continues to prove he's one of the most underrated film actors. It's easy to talk about how life has dealt such a bad hand that there are few options left. Affleck takes it a step beyond by showing through his eyes and actions that his surrender to outside forces is out of his control.
Their work alone would be enough to make this a powerful story. Even the smaller supporting roles are presented with a passion and fury that sells the look at the human condition.
Zoe Saldana is particularly strong taking a role that would have been little more than a love interest in the hands of a lesser actor and turning it into a mirror to look at all the ills that face the community. Her views on family, security and the future continue to morph to fit the latest dire situation sent her way.
Cooper started his career as an actor. That gives him an insight into what it takes to make a role go from two-dimensional to having depth. He's shown an equal ability as a director and writer — starting with "Crazy Heart" in 2009 — to give the players the rich characters and situations to best play their parts.
"Out of the Furnace" is a masterfully crafted tale of people and a place pushed to the edge where their only hope seems to be an abyss of despair.
"Out of the Furnace," rated R for violence, language, drug content. Stars Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana. Directed by Scott Cooper. Running time: 105 minutes. Grade: B+
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.