Out of the Furnace is a sombre film driven by the hard life and quiet dignity of Russell Baze (Christian Bale) Working at a small town steel mill in the Northeast. Russell and his loving girlfriend Lena (Zoe Salanda) plan their lives together and weave hopes of a family. Russell’s father lies dying from working in the steel mill and still Russell is content to stay put and work till his end comes. Fresh and agitated from his Iraq tour Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck) Russel’s brother can’t keep down his rage. When Harian (Woody Harrelson) meets up with Rodney you know death will be knocking.
Affleck steals the movie out from under everyone. While Woody plays the lunatic devil country hick and Bale holds up the story as the straight man, Affleck as Rodney rolls some thunder as the desperate ex-soldier returned home to no work and war ghosts chasing him.
Rodney rattled with rage, flings his skinny sinewy body into the dirt ring of bare knuckle boxing to grab a few dollars and beat down his memories. There is a raw intensity to Rodney battling opponents and himself surrounded by yokels betting welfare checks and drug money.
In the din of fighting Rodney loses his senses and misses his dive, he can’t let go and he takes others with him chasing his own death. John Petty (Willem Defoe) owner of the local bar, debt collector and fight manager tries to corral Rodney, save him from himself so John fixes a few fights for Rodney, but it isn’t enough.
Against his own wisdom John takes Rodney up the mountain to no man’s land to fight on Harian’s turf in a bare knuckle fight, where he is supposed to take a dive. Rodney and Harian stand off each other in their first meeting. Harian taking his angry measure of Rodney. It’s a tangible moment, intense. Harian’s backwoods logic vs the young angelic mad rage of Rodney.
It’s impossible for Russel to let go when he finds out his missing brother has been murdered. Harian and his moonshine cronies blocked off John and Rodney on a mountain road and murdered them both, for money, rage or just pure stupidity.
Russell has had too many bad turns in his life after a drunk driving arrest and a stint in prison. He returns home to find Lena with another man, so he tries to pace his life back to normal at his steel mill job. Russell takes all the tragedy with a quiet strength but Rodney’s death weighs too heavy.
With none really willing to find Harian and deal out small town justice. Russell is forced to flush Harian out into the open to track him. Harian finally wounded and brought down to earth suddenly reveals a more human side. When Russell explains that he is Rodney’s brother, Harian acknowledges Rodney’s toughness then asks Russell if he hears the birds. Harian knows he deserves to die and Russel lets him get up and walk away to shoot him dead like an animal in his scope.
It’s unclear to me what happens to Russell in the end. Lena’s new boyfriend Sheriff sees Russell shoot down Harian. I almost expected the credits to roll leaving the consequences to our imagination. Yet it goes black to a reveal of Russell sitting alone in his fathers house.
Is he waiting for judgement? To go to prison? Did the Sheriff make up a story to get Russell off the hook in the name of justice. The last shot left me unsatisfied. I wanted a moral closure to this male centric story of family and the pain of their lives.
Sometimes straight forward writing should match the story it’s telling.