From the outset, shades of Michael Cimino's Vietnam drama The Deer Hunter permeate Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace: images of Pennsylvania steel mills, a PTSD-addled young soldier forced into a world of underground violence, and, well, actual deer hunting.
The Deer Hunter is a war film where the war is in the background. Out of the Furnace, meanwhile, is a thriller where the action simmers in the background. But as Cimino did in 1978, Cooper also portrays the terrible aftermath of violence and horror from the perspective of those who've perpetrated it.
Out of the Furnace centers on two blue-collar brothers: the elder Russell (Christian Bale), an everyman who is involved in a horrific tragedy that lands him in prison; and Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq War vet struggling to acclimate to civilian life who turns to bare-knuckle boxing in an attempt to make ends meet.
Were the film to focus solely on the brothers, it would be a solid, if slightly dull, meditation on returning to a mundane existence after a life of extremes. Cooper's ambitions go beyond that, and it's not long before Rodney crosses paths with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a lollipop-chomping, heroin-addicted hillbilly who runs a criminal empire amid the dilapidated trailers of the New Jersey mountains.
In the lead-up to the inevitable showdown, Out of the Furnace teeters dangerously close to misery porn, with Bale's wounded hero encountering loss and guilt around every corner. But Bale carries his character across these morose chasms, crafting a portrait of a man whose strength keeps his shoulders level.
Cooper, whose freshman film, Crazy Heart, coaxed a career-best performance out of Jeff Bridges, handles the expansion from quiet character study to mosaic thriller with panache, and he pulls stellar performances from a dream cast. Harrelson seethes malice as the redneck villain. Willem Dafoe sleazes it up as a well-intentioned crook, while Sam Shepard and Forest Whitaker represent righteousness as an elder uncle and a conflicted police chief, respectively.
These performances, along with the naturalistic and subdued direction, elevate the film above a cut-and-dry tale of retribution. By focusing on the anguish of characters forced to drastic measures, Cooper spins a sophisticated tale that never resorts to melodrama.
Critic's Grade: B+
SEE IT: Out of the Furnace is rated R. It opens Friday at Cedar Hills, Eastport, Clackamas, Fox Tower, Lloyd Center, Movies on TV.