More bitter, bleak lives of American mill workers without a compass and no place to go if they had one are showcased in the pessimistic drama Out of the Furnace. It’s getting to be a dismal film director’s obsession bordering on cliché. The hopeless losers this time are working-class brothers from the steel mills, caught between crime, drugs and bare-fisted boxing. But it’s the opening scene that sets the tone. A brain-damaged, coke-sniffing redneck named Harlan DeGroat, played by a miscast Woody Harrelson, vomits through his car window at a drive-in movie, slugs down a bottle of rotgut whiskey, sadistically shoves a hot dog down his girlfriend’s throat, beats the man in the next car senseless and drives away, leaving everyone on the ground for dead. It goes downhill from there.
Enter the shiftless Baze brothers. While their father coughs himself to death with cancer, Russ (Christian Bale) toils aimlessly in a mill that is closing down due to the economy, careens drunkenly along a country road, kills the innocent driver of another car and ends up in prison. His brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck, doing his usual mumbling wacko bit), is just back from multiple tours of duty in Iraq, so full of rage and hate for America he refuses to work for starvation wages in another dead-end job in the factories of Pennsylvania. So he borrows money from a bookie (Willem Dafoe) and joins up with Appalachian mountain maniac Mr. Harrelson, a sort of illegal fight promoter and local drug czar, to pay off his gambling debts. Meanwhile, Russ gets out of jail and finds his girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), playing house with the creepy sheriff (Forest Whitaker). Added to his woes is the fact that after failing to throw a crooked fight, Rodney lands on the hit list of the demented and elusive Mr. Harrelson, who slaughters him in a savage attack with his band of hopped-up hoodlums. Harlan is such a savage that he lights his cigarettes with a blowtorch. Even the cops are afraid to track down this unsalvageable cretin. So Russ goes after Harlan and his nest of viperous untouchables himself. The result is a lot of blood and head-stomping carnage that doesn’t end until half the cast has been wiped out and tough, two-fisted writer-director Scott Cooper has hung out his “The End” sign. It should read “Too Late” instead.
Out of the Furnace is another in a tired line of grainy indictments of spiritually bankrupt America as a sordid breeding ground for disillusionment and crime, partially redeemed by full-throttle ham acting that is always predictable but never less than interesting. Harlan is the kind of rampant, immoral villain Mr. Harrelson loves, where he spits blood and never has to shave. Mr. Bale again disguises his handsome chiseled features with scowls that are beginning to look like permanent scars. Sam Shepard is wasted as a concerned uncle. In what passes among today’s clueless young James Dean wannabes as method acting, Mr. Affleck mutters incoherently in a voice pitched too low for even a dog to hear.
OUT OF THE FURNACE
WRITTEN BY Brad Ingelsby and Scott Cooper
DIRECTED BY Scott Cooper
STARRING Christian Bale, Casey Affleck and Zoe Saldana
RUNNING TIME 116 min.