Memories of “The Deer Hunter” creep in long before the deer hunt in “Out of the Furnace,” co-writer and director Scott Cooper’s ambitious, impressionistic and confused ode to steel belt machismo, code, family and revenge.
Cooper’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Crazy Heart” landed a cast studded with Oscar winners and Oscar nominees. But the story he stuck them in is an unsettlingly violent and unfocused stomp, from its psychotic drive-in assault opening to its dispiriting and unsatisfying finale.
Christian Bale and Casey Affleck play Pennsylvania steel-town brothers. Russell Baze (Bale) stays out of trouble and works hard at the mill, as his dad before him did. Rodney (Affleck) gambles when he’s at home, anything to mimic the risks he takes as a soldier stuck doing multiple tours in Iraq.
Russell is planning a life with Lena (Zoe Saldana). But looking out for Rodney is his life’s work. When the kid gets in deep with the local hustler and loan shark (Willem Dafoe), Russell tries to settle his debts. But after he does, with the requisite drinks that come with that transaction, a deadly car wreck lands him in prison, costs him his girl and his future.
When Rodney returns from war, the kid ups the ante by getting into illegal, bare-knuckle prize fights in the abandoned steels mills of Appalachian Pennsylvania. And that’s when he runs afoul of Harlan (Woody Harrelson). A New Jersey thug with his fingers in everything illegal in these mountains, we’ve seen him brutalize a date at the drive-in in the film’s opening scene. He’s the sort of guy who picks fights.
In this character and Harrelson’s portrayal of him, “Out of the Furnace” shows its strengths and its failings.