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. As Cimino did in 1978, Cooper 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 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. By focusing on the anguish of characters forced to drastic measures, Cooper spins a sophisticated tale that never resorts to melodrama.