Bodies and carcasses: One can hardly tell them apart in Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace. Every male character in this brooding mountain noir is a human slab of meat, waiting to get punctured by a bullet or pummeled by a fist. Some are more at peace with this fate than others. Take Woody Harrelson's Appalachian drug kingpin Harlan DeGroat, for example, who, in the opening sequence, beats a man to pulp while taking in a rural drive-in screening of Clive Barker's Midnight Meat Train. Some men are just born devils.
The film's emphasis on wounds and injury isn't just limited to the physical kind, either. Factory worker Russell Baze (Christian Bale) and his Army-vet brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) carry around enough repressed emotional hurt to fill a few Sirkian melodramas. After killing a family in a drunken-driving accident, Russell's sent to prison and left to fester in his own regret. Rodney must deal with his own demons while caring for their father, who is slowly withering away from cancer.
These unfortunate sons are but a microcosm of an America of wounded but functioning souls living in the blue-collar community of North Braddock, Penn., a ragged place where commerce and identity are slowly eroding. The Obama administration is in its early days, and there is a deep sense of uncertainly filling the air. Maybe that's why Out of the Furnace is so enamored of blunt physical tests, displays of male prowess that end in violence. In such a deteriorating landscape, the last will and testament is fear; backing down from a fight is akin to rolling over for all eternity.
But living by the power of your fists is a futile code, one that can only end in tragedy. When Rodney participates in an illegal boxing match up in the closed-off hills where DeGroat is king, we know this will ultimately turn sideways. The "one last fight" retort is something of a bad omen in any genre, and Out of the Furnace does nothing to prove this adage wrong. Rodney may know this already, but he's willing to risk life and limb in order to prove to his brother that he's more than just a beaten-down piece of meat.
From here, Rodney's disappearance sets in motion a conventional revenge narrative that seems to interrupt the more interesting thematic elements at play. Russell becomes obsessed with finding out the truth, often at the cost of logic or common sense. This progression often feels stilted because Out of the Furnace is poorly paced, full of plodding montages that take eons to make simple symbolic connections. Cooper is still finding his way as a storyteller.
Sluggish transitional scenes also hinder a story in dire need of momentum. As a result, many of the intriguing supporting characters, including Forrest Whitaker's dutiful local cop, Zoe Saldana's kind teacher and Sam Shepard's grizzled elder statesman, are largely left on the sidelines, watching Russell endlessly brood and push toward a foregone conclusion that once again involves the piercing of skin by hot metal.
Yet, Out of the Furnace—which opens Friday, Dec. 6—remains a strange bird worthy of our attention. The more compromised aspects only slightly dilute its overall themes of bloodlust and physical erosion, something brilliantly expressed in the performances. After his work with Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart and now here with Bale, Affleck and Harrelson, Cooper has solidified himself as a performer's director who focuses on frayed men who may unravel at any time.
Through their eyes, Out of the Furnace paints a very grim picture for American masculinity moving forward in the 21st century. While not as cynical as Andrew Dominik's striking Killing Them Softly, Cooper's anti-gangster film is incredibly messy and perpetually haunted, essentially an ethnographic study of killers in their natural habitat. Its argument is simple: We are all walking dead.