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Sunday, Dec. 1, 2013

Out of the Furnace

Christian Bale tops an excellent cast

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Russell (Christian Bale) usually keeps a level head, whether working with a welding torch at the steel mill, caring for his dying dad or trying to talk sense to his irresponsible kid brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Even when he’s sent to prison for manslaughter after a drunken car accident (he wasn’t entirely at fault), Russell keeps his head down, defending himself when necessary, and does his time. But when a loathsome criminal preys on Rodney, Russell’s level head flips.

Out of the Furnace will remind devotees of 1970s American cinema of The Deer Hunter and other gritty, working-class dramas from the period. It might also have been the scenario for a vintage Bruce Springsteen song. Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) sets his film in a decaying mill town in Pennsylvania whose frame houses haven’t been remodeled and painted since the ’70s. Little has changed; there isn’t a cellphone or iPod in sight, and if not for references to Rodney’s tours in Iraq or the specter of “cheap Chinese steel,” it might well be 1978.

For Russell, the mill town isn’t a blue-collar dead end. He accepts his lot and is happy with the working life. But Rodney wants out bad. He owes money to the local kingpin, John Petty (Willem Dafoe), and takes to working the illicit bare-knuckle fight circuit where the rage and hurt of his military service turns him deadly. Out of the Furnace peers into the squalid world of subterranean boxing, conducted in back alleys and dark rooms with no holds barred. Rodney attracts the unwanted attention of a criminal that scares even Harlan (Woody Harrelson), a hateful gorilla who enjoys beating and killing.

If a few bolts seem loose in the plotting, the cast excels. Bale loses himself in his character, a leathery hard man with a good heart. He keeps that level head even when heartbroken by the realization that his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) has left him for the local chief of police (Forest Whitaker). Harlan and his gang have no respect for the law, and when the law proves unable to dispense justice, Russell must decide how far he will go to fight for the thing he values most—his family.
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