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Bare-knuckle lives captured beautifully in intense drama

Published: Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP)
This image released by Relativity Media shows Christian Bale (left) and Casey Affleck in a scene from “Out of the Furnace.”

There is an unnerving moment deep inside the working-class drama “Out of the Furnace” when a primal scream cuts short an old argument between two brothers. Ripped from the emotional core of the younger, a burned-out Army soldier, Rodney Baze, played by Casey Affleck, it is frustration made manifest — a wordless rage against the death of the American dream.

Painful, searing, eloquent, it puts the film’s central themes of ordinary folks weathering the worst of times in sharp relief.

As he will throughout, older brother Russell absorbs it, bears the unbearable, does not look away. Christian Bale as Russell creates one of those stoically decent men forged in the foundries of the Rust Belt, forgotten in a postindustrial age. But then “Out of the Furnace” is rich in talent used wisely. Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker and Sam Shepard help to create a sinewy portrait of a dying way of life.

Director Scott Cooper, whose 2009 critically acclaimed “Crazy Heart” examined the wasted days and nights of a washed-up country singer, has chosen to pick at another thread of social dysfunction in “Out of the Furnace.” The lean script, which he wrote with Brad Ingelsby, gives a face to the all-too-familiar story of economic decline and its effect on those already living on the margins.

Though the blue-collar Baze brothers are the visceral spine of this film, it begins and ends with a backwoods meth kingpin named Harlan Degroat, whom Harrelson takes to terrifying extremes. The opening scene at a drive-in is so brutal, so senseless, it creates an undercurrent of tension and dread that never leaves the film. The narrative swings between Braddock, Pa., the struggling steel town where the Baze family lives, and New Jersey hill country, where life is defined by entrenched poverty, drugs, alcohol, bare-knuckle fighting and Degroat. That the brothers’ lives will intersect in harrowing ways with Degroat’s is only one of several tragic twists of fate the film has in store.

Bale, Affleck and Harrelson are in their element as men battered by life, delivering exceptional performances that hold nothing back. Bale and Affleck are as nuanced as Harrelson is unhinged. It is among the finest work done by all three.

The film opens in 2008 on the eve of Barack Obama’s presidential nomination, along with its promise of change. Rodney is back from a tour in Iraq, racking up gambling debts, trying to pay them off with bare-knuckle fights put together by his bookie, John Petty (Dafoe). Russell spends his days working the steel mill blast furnaces. He’s fallen in love with Lena (Saldana) and dreams of a future and a family. With their dad bedridden, their uncle Red (Shepard) steps into the patriarch role.

Cooper sets a very deliberate pace, taking his time to move the story forward several years as Russell and Rodney are each forced to deal with a series of bad choices. It will include prison time for Russell and more of Iraq for Rodney. The film ultimately turns on Rodney’s disappearance into the bare-knuckle circuit that Degroat runs in the Ramapo Mountains and Russell’s determination to set things right.

For all the violence – and this is a brutal film – there is a stirring tenderness of tough men tucked into the creases. A kiss on the head of a failing father, orchids tended by hardscrabble hands, the details of real life, real strife beautifully captured. A steady stream of irony slips in too, the way Cooper plays images off each other always leaves room for interpretation – Rodney taking a beating in a fixed fight, Russell and Red miles away skinning the deer newly brought down.

The film was shot on location in Braddock, and from the factory to the streets, the authenticity lends a texture to the imagery that echoes Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs. A long-vacated factory provides an eerie backdrop for the penultimate face-off between Russell and Degroat.

Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi captures the contrasts as the film shifts between the languishing town and the natural beauty of rural Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It is all set to the backwoods chords of “Winter’s Bone” composer Dickon Hinchliffe, with Eddie Vedder contributing a poignant new rendition of the Pearl Jam hit “Release.”

Bale, in particular, moves with such grace within the tableau and the loose narrative of the film. A world of worn-down weariness to be found in his thousand-yard stares.

Much is left unsaid, unexplained. Scenes sometimes move from one moment to the next, at other times entire years pass unmarked, unmentioned. The technique lends an out-of-time feel to the film; instead of quick cuts, Cooper often lingers. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s disorienting. But the slow pull of the performances stand in opposition to the rising tension to nice effect. Vengeance, when it comes, brings resolution but no release.

“Out of the Furnace” is not an easy film, almost as rough on the psyche as the fights Rodney gets into. It’s as unrelenting as the tough times it portrays.

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