Out of the Furnace (2013)

Starring: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana. Forest Whittaker, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shephard

Directed by: Scott Cooper

Rating: 1 2 3 4

'Life goes on long after the thrill of living has gone.'
John Mellencamp, Jack and Diane

Christian Bale as Russell Baze in Out of the Furnace

'Contains strong language, strong violence and hard drug use.' So warns the consumer advice for Out of the Furnace. What it omits to say is that the film is also unrelentingly grim and depressing, without the faintest gleam of hope to lighten the darkness. (Although Christian Bale in his hottest role since John Connor has to count for something…)

Bale plays Russell Baze, a steelworker from a small, tough, recession-stricken town near the Appalachian hills. A true grafter, he balances long shifts with caring for his dying father, looking out for his reckless younger brother, Rodney, a soldier (Casey Affleck) and snatching precious moments with his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana). His is the working class America of Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp, where life is hard but not unbearable, and he makes the best of his lot with good humoured equanimity.

But Russell's life falls unexpectedly apart when, over the limit, he crashes his car and kills a boy and his mother.

Casey Afflect as Rodney Baze in Out of the Furnace

Fast-forward several years and he's released from prison to find a pall cast over the world outside. His father has died and the steel mill is on its uppers. Lena has left him for the town's sheriff (Forest Whittaker) and his brother has returned from a tour in Iraq a wounded, bitter, angry man. Scorning the blue collar existence of knuckling down and making do that has eroded the hopes of his father and older brother, Rodney has chosen to settle his gambling debts though bareknuckle fistfights rigged by local bookie John Petty (the ever fabulous Willem Dafoe). But Rodney is tired of punching below his weight for a pittance and persuades a reluctant John to introduce him to the big league: illegal fights run by psychotic meth-head hillbilly Harlan DeGroat, who, played by almost anyone else but Woody Harrelson, would have been a clichéd redneck caricature, but here is the epitome of unhinged, inhuman, ruthless menace.

Woody Harrelson as Harlan DeGroat in Out of the Furnace

If you're thinking that this all sounds a bit like the plot of a Jean-Claude Van Damme film (with both brothers played by the Muscles from Brussels, natch), well, in a way you'd be right. But nothing could be further from the cosy predictability of high-kicking '80s martial arts movies than this brooding, volatile piece of cinema. Forget Double Impact, think The Deer Hunter.

Because, as you can probably guess, once Rodney heads for the hills, things quickly go from bad to worse, and Russell finds himself locked into a visceral battle he did not pick but cannot possibly step away from, but which will bring him no peace, no thin shred of happiness, no redemption.

If you want a film that leaves you on a warm, fuzzy high, step away from Out of the Furnace and go see The Secret Life of Walter Mitty instead. But if you're prepared to be challenged, shocked and upset by some truly top class performances (particularly from Bale of course) and a tough, uncompromising, engrossing and, yes, utterly depressing, story, prepare to feel the burn.

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