The Pennsylvania town where Scott Cooper's superb Out of the Furnace is set looks ready to collapse at any moment. Its steel mill is rusted, and chain-link fences lean at precarious angles, barely protecting the weedy ground behind them. Filmmakers often misuse insert shots like these when trying to give a story a sense of place. But in Out of the Furnace, this approach works because Cooper is deeply committed to telling a tale that happens because it's in this particular place, at this particular time.
At the center is the struggling Baze family. Russ (Christian Bale) works at the steel mill, his emotional resources divided among his girlfriend, Lena (Zoë Saldana), his terminally ill father, and his brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), who has amassed tons of gambling debt. One extra drink sends Russ into a car accident that kills two people and lands him in prison. As he serves his term, his relationship with Lena withers, and Rodney heads to Iraq with the Army.
The life-goes-on aspect of Out of the Furnace is part of what makes the story's pace so unusual. Instead of zipping through the incarceration with a flash-forward, we wait through it with Russ. We watch as he struggles to stay out of trouble and as Rodney delivers bad news from the outside world. Taking time to develop the story makes Out of the Furnace textured and gripping. And the characters' motives are clear: The choices they make are built steadily upon those they made earlier.
Surprisingly, the conflict emphasized in the movie's marketing campaign -- between Russ and a crime kingpin named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) -- doesn't gain momentum until Out of the Furnace is more than half over. When PTSD-afflicted Rodney finds it difficult to adjust to civilian life, he starts fighting bare-knuckle brawls underground. He eventually crosses paths with Harlan in a way that puts him in danger and sets Russ on a collision course with this violent man.
Harrelson turns in a great performance. It's easy to believe him when he responds to a rhetorical "You got a problem with me?" with "I've got a problem with everybody." It wouldn't be hard to build a solid tale out of a clash between a redneck psycho and a decent man pushed too far, but Out of the Furnace has loftier goals. Cooper shows how Russ loses everything that matters to him, piece by piece, to the point where can't imagine a future. There are a few moments of clunky symbolism, but they don't erase the heartbreaking way this story shows how blue collars choke the life out of many Americans who wear them.