When Barack Obama made his comment during the 2008 presidential campaign about some Americans clinging to "guns and religion" during hard times, he might have been referring to the characters in Out of the Furnace, the new drama from Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper. A subdued portrait of a blue-collar Pennsylvania town slowly unraveling, Out of the Furnace sports the sort of hard-luck characters and family strife you'd expect from a 1980s Bruce Springsteen song. The movie doesn't have a lot new to say about downsized, shipped-overseas America, but that's for the best. When the film is at its strongest, Cooper sets aside the commentary and just lets these people go about their business of slowly destroying each other or themselves.
Out of the Furnace stars Christian Bale as Russell, a likable roughneck who works at the local mill, just like his father before him. But after being convicted of vehicular homicide while drunk driving, Russell's modestly content life falls apart: His ailing father dies while he's in the clink, and his girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) leaves him for a police chief played by Forest Whitaker. Plus, Russell's brother Rodney (Casey Affleck, a wiz at capturing muted, resigned anger), who did four tours during the Iraq War, has come home to learn that there aren't any jobs. Deciding he's too good for manual labor, Rodney rejects working at the mill to make money in local underground boxing matches.
Just from that plot description, it's clear that Out of the Furnace is embedded with several campaign talking points: The Economy! The Erosion of the Middle Class! Support the Troops! But Cooper largely stays away from editorializing, focusing instead on a stripped-down narrative that we only slowly realize is going to become a thriller. Rodney's badly in debt, which puts him in the crosshairs of Harlan (Woody Harrelson), a frightening drug dealer with a dangerous violent streak. Harrelson plays him as everyone's worst-case-scenario image of a backwoods cretin—all leering eyes and redneck laugh—and it's the contrast between Harlan's uncouth psychopath and Russell's beaten-down, dignified working man that gives Out of the Furnace its modest spark. Without really calling attention to it, Cooper seems to be suggesting that America's small towns are locked in a battle embodied by his two main characters—one where either weathered virtue or darker, more primal impulses will prevail.
What keeps that thematic undercurrent from being patronizing is the quality of the performances. Even with Harrelson's scumbag portrayal, Out of the Furnace is light on local-color quirk. This is a movie about "ordinary folks" where the actors actually play their characters as ordinary folks. Bale's Russell doesn't have a lick of precious saintliness to him: He's just a guy who did something stupid one night and knows he'll always be living with the consequences, even though he's served his time. And the rest of the cast falls in line behind Bale, giving performances that are appropriately small-scale without fetishizing the characters' meager means. (It's no surprise that Sam Shepard is in this movie: His no-bull ruggedness and authenticity are Out of the Furnace's guiding light.)
But while Out of the Furnace is commendably lacking in sensationalism—it's neither a Deliverance-like hellscape nor a land of treacly small-town poetry—it's also not a particularly riveting experience. Almost to a fault, Cooper goes about telling his story (co-written by Brad Ingelsby) without many twists or escalating tension. It's best not to spoil what happens, but suffice it to say that Out of the Furnace somewhat early on suggests an inevitable showdown between Russell and Harlan, and the rest of the movie moves along at a deliberate pace until that moment occurs. But if the film isn't exactly a pulse-pounder, it compensates by being an understated look at how a community operates when left to fend for itself. Cooper doesn't lay the blame on Obama, Bush or anyone else—Out of the Furnace isn't meant to enrage you, or provoke action—but there's a clear sense that these people found their way into violence and crime because other opportunities dried up. The tone of Out of the Furnace is bleak and pitiless, a reflection of the just-getting-by lives of Russell and Rodney. They don't ask for anyone's sympathy because they know they got themselves into their own mess. But as the movie argues, that doesn't mean they don't deserve better than the hands they've been dealt.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.