With only two movies the country-music drama "Crazy Heart" and now the gritty "Out of the Furnace" director Scott Cooper has carved out a niche as the go-to guy for dark character studies of people at the end of life's tether.
In "Out of the Furnace," it's two men who are being treated roughly by the breaks in their life. Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a hard-working guy in a Pennsylvania steel town whose life is upended when a DUI-related vehicular homicide conviction puts him in prison. Russell's younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) has done four tours in Iraq, is still suffering from what he saw and did there, and has run up debts with a local loan shark, John Petty (Willem Dafoe).
Rodney, hoping to erase his debt and score some cash, starts fighting in an illegal boxing racket set up by Petty. But he's too stubborn to take a dive, as Petty instructs him. He's also too stubborn to take Petty's advice to avoid a bigger boxing operation in rural New Jersey run by a nasty backwoods meth dealer, Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).
When a recently paroled Russell learns what happens to Rodney, he also learns that the local police chief, Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker), can do little about it. Russell and Wesley have a connection: Lena (Zoe Saldana), Russell's girlfriend before his prison stint, is now with Wesley.
A confrontation between Russell and Harlan is inevitable, as movies like this go. But Cooper (who wrote the script with Brad Ingelsby) allows time before that encounter to soak in the lives that Russell and Rodney have led up to this point. With hard-edged cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi ("Silver Linings Playbook"), Cooper captures the rust and smoke that has permeated the Baze brothers' lives and the sense of despair that has determined their fates.
In a movie loaded with tough performances, Bale's work stands out. With little unnecessary dialogue and an economy of gestures, he gets under the audience's skin as he depicts Russell's agony over his wrecked life and the grim determination to find some justice for his brother, no matter the cost. Bale gives "Out of the Furnace" the emotional power that makes such a bleak story worth watching.
'Out of the Furnace'
Christian Bale's tense performance propels this drama about an ex-convict seeking rough justice for his brother's disappearance.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 6.
Rating • R for strong violence, language and drug content.
Running time • 116 minutes.