Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace opens by sketching the critical traits of its three main characters: Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works at the steel mill in a fading town; his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) is at the OTB making impulsive bets; and at the drive-in, Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) savagely beats two people. Duty, carelessness, violence: What each man brings to the table ultimately undoes him.
The story begins in 2008, but the unraveling begins a couple of years later. Back from serving in Iraq, Rodney fights in illegal matches, paying off a local fixer, John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Russell has done a stint in jail, but is back at home and the mill. Inevitably, Rodney and Petty get missed up with DeGroat, who runs even bigger illegal fights, and it's left to Russell to clean up the mess.
Despite trailers that make the film look like an actioner, Furnace is a slower drama. Its best scenes are quiet, and Cooper, clearly enamored of the Rust Belt landscape, spends a lot of time depicting the run-down town. Braddock (and North Braddock) plays itself, though care has been taken to not show any of the town's recent improvements or, say, the bustling shopping center across the river. Furnace is all boarded-up storefronts, empty streets and rusting hulks of long-dead industry.
Cooper, who co-wrote the film with Brad Ingelsby, builds up a relatively solid story that straddles kitchen-sink drama with more Hollywood aspects. He gets painted in at the end, where actions are more consistent with settling the plot and its themes than they are organic. Some of the wobblier material is saved by the actors (including Sam Shepard and Forest Whitaker), and I'm even willing to forgive Harrelson for portraying another bug-eyed, hillbilly sociopath.
Cooper is partial to intercutting scenes that contrast a solid way of living (as it was) with Rodney's troubles: Russell fixes up their home, Rodney screws up a bout; Russell goes deer hunting with his uncle; Rodney and Petty make an ill-advised journey out of state. What transpires results from poor decisions, and perhaps these dark roads might have been turned down anyway. The downbeat story implies there isn't much hope for this generation of Bazes: Rodney joins the Army and returns crippled with PTSD; Russell works at the mill, which is now closing.
At one point Russell attends a church service, and the priest explains, "With his stripes, we are healed." Christ chose to suffer for mankind's sins, and so too does Russell believe he can take the burden for his brother's transgressions. But there's no divine redemption here, just more darkness.