by Lucy Leitner
One thing is certain: if Christian Bale works in a factory, he should not be driving.
In the bleak, laugh-less Out of the Furnace, Bale’s protagonist Russell is a steelworker in Braddock with a dying father, a troubled brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), and a beautiful girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana). It’s not much — it’s Braddock — but he’s happy. He’s doing it right. Until it all goes wrong when he takes an ill-advised whiskey shot from local loan shark John (Willem Dafoe) and winds up killing a kid in a DUI crash. I think. The camera angle left it purposefully vague and apparently without a driver in the victim’s car.
He’s in jail while Rodney’s post-deployment job prospects and mental state continue to deteriorate, while his father dies, while his girlfriend leaves him for the local police chief Wesley (Forrest Whitaker). John, he of the fateful whiskey shot, has been making Rodney take dives in underground boxing matches to pay back a debt he owes to violent, lollipop-sucking, crank-injecting, psychotic, hill-dwelling belt buckle enthusiast Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).
Things got bad. Yet, with the exception of getting ditched for Forrest Whitaker, those circumstances would not have been different if he had not been jailed. Unless the angel Clarence shows up and shows Russell how one action could have led his brother to a more merciful fate. So, why send him to jail? To show the futility of living a good life? Of hard work every day when the steel mill is just going to close soon anyway? Of Rodney’s search for a career after four tours in Iraq? Of giving years to his country for nothing in return except a pair of fatigue pants to wear in an illicit boxing ring? Of the police when Rodney goes missing? Of being an underground boxing promoter/loan shark with a heart of, well — what’s the lowest carat of gold? The futility of trying to live a good life when you can just be Harlan DeGroat?
Futility appears to be the central theme and the scenes and plot lines surround it appear, without taking an existential look, futile. Character motivations are clear even though their methods are often muddled. This is not a criticism of the writing — the characters are just frustratingly human.
You know where the movie is going. You know that the characters are going to react in a manner that will not be most beneficial in the long run. The only real surprise is that Christian Bale can get left for Forrest Whitaker. You know that Russell’s actions are motivated — at least in part — by righteousness, Rodney’s by desperation, Harlan’s by being the worst person in the world. And, with the exception of blatant racism, Harlan has just about every villainous trait possible. He’s a like a Hills Have Eyes mountain villain without the radiation to justify his violent madness. We know he’s bad in the first scene of the movie and John does not let us forget it with constant verbal reminders. He is a villain with no redeeming qualities, no complex motivation besides greed and bloodlust. The deepest we get into Harlan is a hint of cowardice when he pulls the trigger. Mickey Knox had a better shot at redemption than Harlan DeGroat. But that’s okay. His villainy is focused on being a greedy, drug-addled hillbilly psycho. He is not a conglomeration of every villain cliche. He is not The Governor.
And Harrelson’s performance, like the rest of the cast, makes it work. The dramatic chops of all the players kept a bleak, humorless exploration of human futility entertaining.
In terms of the Pittsburgh setting, there’s not much to see. And the actual current state of Braddock is the opposite of the futility theme of the film — what with mayor John Fetterman’s constant efforts to get the city out of Atlantis status and infuse it with art and commerce to put it back on the map. However, it provides an ideal backdrop on a visual level for the film. There’s some black and gold and Russell sports a neck tattoo that appears to be a local zip code beginning with 1510-.
This is not one of the films that makes Pittsburgh look beautiful. It doesn’t make anything look beautiful. It’s bleak, but not hopeless. It’s not a surprise, but it’s an interesting detour to exactly where you thought you’d be going.