Out of the Furnace…and Into the Indie-Film Clichés

The performances of Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson redeem a Rust Belt drama that moseys toward violence

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Kerry Hayes / Relativity Media

A decent man with not much luck, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works in a steel mill in depressed West Braddock, Pennsylvania. He loves his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana), kisses his ailing father on the pate and watches out for his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) when the kid is home between tours of Iraq. On a hunting trip with his genial uncle (Sam Shepard), he aims at a deer but refuses to shoot.

A resplendent rotter, Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) assaults his date at a drive-in theater, then kicks the crap out of a man who tries to intervene. Leader of a tribe of “inbred” New Jersey mountainfolk, Harlan runs a meth lab, whose samples he injects in his big toe, and stages illegal bare-knuckle brawls, solving any wrinkles in that business by killing the losing fighter and his manager.

Good guy, bad guy, on a collision course. If Russell were to get an unarmed DeGroat in his gunsight, would this peaceful man be able to pull the trigger?

(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Scott Cooper’s Crazy Heart)

In Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, a smartly filmed mashup of moody character study and revenge melodrama, mood wins. Cooper, the actor who, in his directorial debut, Crazy Heart, coaxed Jeff Bridges to an Oscar, gives his fine performers all the space and time they need to grunt out their lines and stare meaningfully into the middle distance. Adapting an original script by Brad Ingelsby, Cooper spends an hour setting up the hopelessness of life in West Braddock  before kicking the vengeance plot into gear. If you’re looking for a compendium of indie-film longueurs, see the first half of Out of the Furnace. Only in the final act does it become an actual movie.

The movie Cooper might have been thinking of is The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino’s Oscar-winning display of histrionics among the good folks of Clairton, Pa., just 12 miles south of North Braddock (Cimino shot part of his movie there) and the Viet Cong savages who torture the Pennsylvania boys when they serve in Vietnam. DeGroat’s clan stands in for those faraway sadists — though it’s never explained why Rodney and his fight manager John Petty (Willem Dafoe) would have to travel 300 miles east into New Jersey to find this evil adversary. The Keystone State must be filled with nature’s noblemen.

(READ: Our 1978 review of The Deer Hunter by subscribing to TIME)

One curious aspect of the indie-film aesthetic is that, even as it denounces such Hollywood conventions as a brisk pace and snappy, intelligible dialogue, it clings to hoary plot clichés, behavioral explosions and noble resolutions. One character writes to another, “I’m gonna do this one last fight and then retire;” it may as well be a suicide note, as any of a hundred cop movies about an officer on the verge of retirement can attest. When Russell gets angry, he smashes a wall phone in his home to bits; the gesture is as outmoded as land lines. At film’s end, a policeman (Forest Whitaker — the movie’s cast is all A-listers) tries to intervene in the big shootout but parks his patrol car a football field away from the man with the gun.

We grant that the pokey first hour is sit-throughable because of the high caliber of the actors, especially Bale. In a 180 from his agitated performance as con-man Irving Rosenfeld in this month’s American Hustle, Bale trades in Irving’s elaborate combover for Russell’s bold tattoos as his character’s objective correlative, and is all alert tension, watchful and thoughtful. He keeps the audience on his side through a prison stretch that Russell serves for killing a child in a car crash, before the thriller elements turn him into a vigilante. A film of truly independent mind would have recognized that Russell is a hero simply by adhering to the mill-town work ethic and caring for his family. But Out of the Furnace must rev itself up to violent retribution, to lasso back the viewers it has alienated or sedated in its first hour. If that were a separate film, it could be called American Torpor.

(READ: Corliss’s review of American Hustle)

After DeGroat’s viciousness at the drive-in, moviegoers sickened by the display will nonetheless ache to see more of him. The role of the implacable psychopath is the merest twist on the crafty-crazy yokel character Harrelson has played in Zombieland, 2012, Rampart and Seven Psychopaths. In their one encounter before the climax, Russell asks DeGroat, “You got a problem with me?” and gets the reply, “I got a problem with everybody.” Harrelson’s DeGroat isn’t the problem in this meandering melodrama; it’s the solution — the saving destination for a movie that, like its Rust Belt characters, had been going nowhere, slow.