When we first meet Harlan DeGroat, the squirrelly New Jersey hillbilly played with unnerving ferocity by Woody Harrelson in Out of the Furnace, he forces a woman to swallow a hot dog whole, then nearly beats a stranger to death for daring to intervene. That's exactly the sort of movie this is: melodramatic, grim, and relentlessly ugly. It's humorless, hopeless, and utterly lightless, without an ounce of mercy for any of the characters whose lives are ruined or snuffed out between its violent opening scene and grim finale. If you're looking for a counterpoint to all those movies about perseverance and hope and the triumph of good people over bad ones, this is it.
Out of the Furnace‘s intentions, however dour they may be, are good, but the movie is undone by a one-note coldness that permeates nearly every scene. Lots of awful things happen to people who don't deserve them, but it's tough to care. Though its story is mostly tethered to a dying Pennsylvania steel town, the movie has the feel of a misguided epic. Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a hard-working welder trying to earn enough cash to start a family with his girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana, who offers the film's only note of grace). His younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), is a victim of the Army's stop-loss program, eventually serving four tours of duty in Iraq and damaged beyond repair by the things he sees and does there. A grisly car accident lands Russell in prison for several years; when he's finally released, he finds that Rodney's gambling addiction has landed him in an illegal fight ring that runs along the spine of Appalachia.
The first rule of this redneck fight club is that you don't cross its leader, Harlan DeGroat. After Rodney proves too proud, or perhaps just too crazy, to pay off a debt by taking a fall during a fight, the young soldier finds himself on Harlan's bad side (or, more accurately, his even worse side, since Harlan doesn't have a good one). When Rodney disappears and the local police chief (Forest Whitaker) seems unable to do anything about it, Russell takes matters into his own hands and goes after Harlan himself.
This grim Rust Belt noir has some things going for it, most notably a handful of very good performances and some flat-out gorgeous photography. Tonally and thematically, Out of the Furnace's most obvious predecessors are The Deer Hunter and Winter's Bone, but it manages neither the uncomfortable social commentary of the former nor the modern-day myth-making of the latter. It's also very hard to forget either of those films while you're watching Out of the Furnace, a movie that traffics so heavily in clichés and melodrama that it seems to exist almost entirely as a response to other, better films. A visually striking SWAT team raid loses its impact as soon as you realize it was borrowed from The Silence of the Lambs; a rural execution scene is a little too reminiscent of The Onion Field.
Scott Cooper, who co-wrote Out of the Furnace with first-time feature writer Brad Ingelsby, is establishing himself as an actor's director. Jeff Bridges collected an Oscar for his role in Cooper's first film (2010's Crazy Heart), and it's not hard to imagine Bale and Affleck had similar hopes when they signed on for Out of the Furnace. Both men give excellent performances, as do Harrelson and other supporting players, including Willem Dafoe and Sam Shepard. Affleck is particularly interesting to watch; he's a bundle of explosive aggression, hollow stares, and empty promises. One of the movie's most interesting, if morbid, challenges is to figure out exactly when Rodney became so lost. Was it his first tour in Iraq? When his father was diagnosed with cancer? When his protective older brother was shipped off to prison? Or did he ever have any chance at all?
Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter. There's never a single moment in Out of the Furnace when we're given any reason to think things will turn out well for either brother or for anyone close to them. If you're surprised by any of the story's turns, I have to question your commitment to crime films. The brothers careen from one standard noir device to the next before a hurried revenge story plays out in the final act. It's a badly written, well-acted, and beautifully photographed exercise in despair, without much of a dramatic or narrative payoff. There are points in its favor, but to recommend it feels like an act of spite.