The raw-boned crime drama “Out of the Furnace” is set in a dying Pennsylvania steel town, one of those forlorn whistle stops from a Bruce Springsteen ballad. Christian Bale plays Russell, a second-generation laborer in the rusted-out Braddock mill, and the title hints at his fate. When he takes on one of the most fearsome backwoods crime families on the East Coast with only his wits and a hunting rifle, he’ll either emerge stronger because of the heat he has endured, or he’ll be consumed.
Director/co-writer Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) sets his hardscrabble story in 2008, linking it to the economic malaise of the great recession and the homefront repercussions of the Iraq war. As their bedridden father lies dying at home, Russell’s younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), a rootless, violence-prone veteran, is losing big on horse races. Russell intercedes on his behalf with the town loan shark (Willem Dafoe, in a kindhearted take on a traditionally threatening character). But when an accident earns Russell four years in prison for involuntary manslaughter, hotheaded Rodney digs himself in deeper.
Rodney puts his combat skills to use in an underground fighting circuit. Woody Harrelson plays the kingpin, DeGroat, a leering hillbilly Caligula. If Rodney throws some bare-knuckle fights, DeGroat will erase his debts. But Rodney has a hard time obeying anyone’s orders, especially when his fighting blood is at full boil.
The noir plot elements here are venerable, to say the least. Cooper refreshes the well-worn material with a powerhouse cast (Zoe Saldana plays Russell’s girlfriend, who moves on to local lawman Forest Whitaker when he’s sent away). Cooper, whose previous film got Jeff Bridges a best actor Oscar, draws committed performances from his stars. You can almost smell Harrelson’s rancid meth-dealer. There’s a touching reunion scene between Saldana and Bale, who trembles at first, then sags when he finally realizes where he stands with her.
The hair-trigger family dynamic between the close but conflicted brothers feels raw and authentic. Sam Shepard, as their easygoing uncle, exudes the kind-but-tough solidity of a modern Gary Cooper. Despite the presence of unforgivably derivative sequences lifted from “The Deer Hunter” and “The Silence of the Lambs,” the direction is trim and brutal.
Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (of the Liam Neeson wolf adventure “The Grey”) knows how to shoot the story’s desolate, camera-friendly locales, and its bloody confrontations. He makes the characters’ violence caveman-primitive and lacerating. Still, I wouldn’t rank this unrelentingly efficient film with top rural noirs like 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” or this fall’s “Prisoners.” There’s nothing ambitious in the film’s design, no greater resonance beyond the immediate story. It says nothing about vigilante justice, the fate of returning vets or manufacturing communities becoming ghost towns. It’s grim, solid suspense craftsmanship, nothing more.