I haven’t seen “American Hustle” (David. O. Russell’s much-hyped, Oscar-baity ensemble dramedy) yet, but it will be difficult for Christian Bale to outdo himself in that film with the performance he put in as a blue-collar, steel mill worker in “Out of the Furnace.”
If the tagline “From the director of ‘Crazy Heart’” has made up your mind about “Out of the Furnace,” please think again. This movie is not for everyone — and in fact, it’s probably not for many people.
Both of the protagonists in young director Scott Campbell’s (who co-wrote the script) two acclaimed feature films are down-on-his-luck kind of guys, but that’s where the similarities end. “Out of the Furnace” is a brutally gritty and violent film, which had two of my friends covering their eyes with their hands throughout at least three-quarters of the movie.
Bale stars as Russell Baze, a working-class guy in Braddock, Penn. who works double shifts to bring home the bacon to his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana, who doesn’t do much the whole film except be attractive) who really wants a baby.
Russell’s brother Rodney — played with excruciating agony by Casey Affleck — is a soldier who comes and goes from brutal tours in Iraq.
Their father is dying, their mother is dead and their Uncle Red (an underused Sam Shepard) is the only family member around. Russell watches over Rodney because he knows he has a tendency to make bad decisions, like borrow money from the town bookie, John Petty (played by a deliciously sleazy Willem Dafoe).
After Russell has a couple of drinks and repays part of his younger brother’s debt to Petty, he makes a fatal mistake that lands him in jail. Once he gets out, Lena has left him and his father has died. Rodney is the only thing left in his life.
Meanwhile, Rodney convinces Petty to let him fight in Harlan DeGroat’s (a TERRIFYING meth-injecting, rotten-toothed Woody Harrelson) fight club up in the backwoods of New Jersey to repay a debt that Rodney owes to Petty and one that Petty owes to DeGroat.
Once Rodney goes missing and the Braddock law enforcement seems incapable of helping, Russell takes matters into his own hands. You can see where this is going — or can you?
Bale’s performance as a What do I have to lose? brother in a crime/redemption/brotherly love story is a thing of mastery. Despite all of the action sequences and interactions with Rodney, one of film’s best scenes is a simple, heartbreaking moment between Russell and Lena.
Things never go this guy’s way and they never will. “Out of the Furnace” is about money, poverty, redemption, debt and love. But it’s mostly it’s about family and the lengths someone will go to to honor it.
Christian Bale could be Christian Bale’s own worst enemy this awards season and he only has his chameleonic yet subtle acting chops to blame.