You won’t see many films this year as unrelentingly bleak or depressing at this, but then again, you won’t see many as powerful or as brilliantly acted.
Directed by Scott Cooper, who made the equally excellent Crazy Heart, this is a tale of ordinary men turned into something else entirely by the circumstances they find themselves in. For young Rodney Baze (Casey Affleck once again proving what an under-rated actor he is) it is the horrors he has seen while serving in Iraq that have made him into a self-loathing loser who believes the only way he can turn his life around is to do what he has been trained to do – fight.
So he starts out on the bare knuckle fighting circuit, much to the anguish of older brother Russell (Christian Bale in another outstanding performance). Russell is a truly decent man, holding down a job in the local steel foundry and living a quiet life with his girlfriend (Zoe Saladana). But his efforts to clean up Rodney’s mess lead to him losing his job, his girlfriend and even his liberty when, on returning from paying off Rodney’s gambling debts he crashes his car and kills a child, subsequently failing a breath test.
While Russell is in jail, Rodney’s life descends further into chaos as he gets the local fixer (Willem Dafoe) to arrange a fight with an inbred redneck gang led by the truly terrifying Harlan (Woody Harrelson). It is at this stage that the film becomes grimly, grittily dark, vicious and violent with no sign of redemption anywhere. Whereas Crazy Heart had lighter scenes that lifted the mood, here there is no sign of salvation, no glimmer of hope. Even a tender meeting between Russell and his ex, at which he hopes to rekindle their romance, ends in an heart-wrenching embrace as she rejects him for the final time.
Out of the Furnace is about endurance in the face of adversity, so there is no feel-good factor here. However, this powerful film packs a real punch to the solar plexus leaving the audience feeling as psychologically pummelled as Rodney is physically beaten, and contains performances that resonate long after the movie has ended.