The descent into the Rust Belt of steel-town America is dismally depicted in director and co-writer Scott Cooper’s tragically realistic drama Out of the Furnace. Cooper chronicles the downward spiraling lives of two blue-collar brothers thrown into the criminal world of drugs and bare-knuckle boxing. The story follows Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a hardworking, well-intentioned steel mill worker who lives a humble life with girlfriend Lena Warren (Zoe Saldana). While his father slowly fades from a terminal illness, Russell struggles settling the gambling debts of his worn-down brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). Out of the Furnace tells the starkly cathartic tale of a man selflessly searching to do some right for both him and his brother.
Set in Braddock, Pa., this blue-collar crime drama portrays a town blackened by smoke from it’s blast furnace, Russell’s place of work. Opting out of the mill life that trapped his father and brother before him, Rodney leaves to join the Army and serves four tours in Iraq. He returns to his hometown tormented, having seen and done things that poison his perspective on what it means to give your life for your country and get nothing in return.
Paralyzed with rage and marginalized by society, Rodney works for local barkeeper and bookie John Petty (Willem Dafoe) in an underground boxing league of the local crime syndicate. When Rodney begs Petty to put him in a higher-stakes fight, Rodney gets embroiled with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a ruthless, psychotic hillbilly kingpin. Gambling debts lure Rodney into DeGroat’s crime ring, while Russell works with the county sheriff, Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker), and risks everything he has to seek justice for his brother.
At the heart of the film is the parallelism between the two brothers and the different paths they took that similarly force them into making difficult decisions. The Baze brothers are dealt a bad hand after a tragic twist of fate and attempt to readjust themselves in lean economic times. Emotional damage was ubiquitous in both characters, which is what makes Cooper’s films so convincingly lifelike. Both brothers struggle containing the frustration of harsh times, which eventually get the better of them.
Bale forges an effortless and loving, brotherly bond with Affleck. Each actor gives a strikingly heartrending performance. It’s bare. It’s raw. It’s true. At the beginning of the film, Russell serves as a calming buffer to Rodney’s depressingly tortured mind. But as Russell tries to make up for lost time, he gradually inherits his brother’s anguish when his mistakes cost him the things he values most in life. Pearl Jam’s soulful refrain of their song “Release” provides a morose backdrop that matches the inner traumas of the two brothers. Stained by a lifetime of regrets and bad decisions, the brothers fight for some stability in their lives while bearing the brunt of being products of a fading, rustic working class. This story is a towering look into the struggles of two honest but tragically flawed brothers dealing with their own limitations and mistakes.
Star-studded with Academy Award winners and nominees, Out of the Furnace is a deterministic, melancholic tale of the strong bond of brothers and the tragedies of reality, glazed with a tough, hard-edged bucolic style. Cooper’s character-driven depiction of raw emotional tragedies earns him the seat as one of the most compelling scenarist directors at the Hollywood table.
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