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Into the fire

Out of the Furnace a gritty look at tough times in a blue-collar town

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A deer-hunting sequence in the middle of Out of the Furnace deliberately recalls Michael Cimino's 1978 film The Deer Hunter, specifically the scene in which Robert De Niro's character, returned from the trauma of the war in Vietnam, draws a bead a deer but can't bring himself to shoot, presumably because he has had enough of killing.

The context is entirely different when Christian Bale takes aim in director Scott Cooper's followup to his country-western melodrama Crazy Heart, but the milieu is roughly the same. Out of the Furnace is set in a depressed blue-collar realm of the Rust Belt of the northeast United States, a desolate, all-American landscape touched by both failing economy and geopolitical conflict.

Bale plays Russell Baze, a decent, stand-up steel worker whose domestic bliss with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) is offset by caring for a dying father and concern for his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). An Iraq vet damaged by his wartime experience, Rodney's civilian life is marked by reckless gambling and other dangerous risks. Instead of Deer Hunter's harrowing Russian roulette games, Rodney is drawn into the world of bare-knuckle fighting through his friendship with local loan shark John (Willem Dafoe).

Unfortunately, this particular career choice places Rodney in the same orbit as Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a backwoods drug kingpin who demonstrates his viciousness in the film's prelude, assaulting both his date and her would-be rescuer at a drive-in movie.

Russell's attempt to cover his brother's debts leads, in a rambling way, to his own imprisonment. By the time he gets out of jail, his girlfriend is living with a local cop (Forest Whitaker) and the self-destructive Rodney is enmeshed in DeGroat's psychopathic realm of drugs and violence.

A reckoning is inevitable.

The cast does fine work, including Affleck as the explosive Rodney and Dafoe as a tough guy out of his league among amoral "inbreds."

But the film's most compelling dynamic comes from its nemeses. It's interesting how the British Bale so convincingly installs himself in the role of a laconic American archetype: the flawed hero who takes it upon himself to find justice. As his opposite, Harrelson does some pretty extraordinary work as a guy whose wholesale contempt for humanity is tattooed on his fists and his soul.

Cooper, who co-scripted the film with Brad Inglesby, does not attempt to duplicate Cimino's grandiose style, nor does he suggest, as Cimino did, that American innocence was lost in a dubious war on the other side of the world.

Instead, Cooper impresses with a formally tight, unrelentingly grim portrait of a working-class population under siege from without and within.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 6, 2013 D1

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