The life of Russell Baze, a steelworker in a Pennsylvania town just outside of Pittsburgh, may be drab and dreary, but he's a good, hardworking man with a loving girlfriend. His younger brother, Rodney, has it tougher: A war vet suffering from PTSD, he hasn't been able to re-adjust to life at home, falling in with the local thugs and turning to bare-knuckle brawling to make a little scratch. Disaster strikes when Russell goes to prison on a drunk-driving charge — there, the only shiny thing in his life is the razor wire unspooled atop the prison walls. By the time he's released, he's lost his girlfriend, and his brother has burrowed deeper into a life of trouble. As always, Russell acts responsibly — until he's pushed to the limit.
If that were the plot of a drive-in movie of the '70s, you might actually want to see it — it's a basic but sturdy idea that could have some juice. As it is, it's the story director Scott Cooper tells in his somber drama Out of the Furnace, and he squeezes precious few droplets of energy out of it. The picture is earnest to a fault, coming off like an exploration of how "the little people" live, so carefully written that it veritably trumpets how remote it is from the grittiness of its subject matter. You can almost hear the gears humming: Out of the Furnace is calibrated to move us, which isn't the same as drawing us invisibly and quietly into its world.
The paradox of overwritten movies like Out of the Furnace is that they often provide good showcases for actors. Cooper previously made 2009's Crazy Heart, casting Jeff Bridges as a faded country star — his performance was a thing of grizzled beauty. In Out of the Furnace, Cooper chosen his actors with obvious care: Christian Bale plays the dutiful Russell; Casey Affleck is the wayward Rodney. Willem Dafoe shows up as a small-town crime kingpin. Woody Harrelson is a tattooed goon from the remote Ramapo Mountains, a "don't go thar" place if ever there was one. Zoe Saldana has the thankless role of the sweet girlfriend, though she adds more layers of subtlety than many actresses could. And Sam Shepard shows up for his 10 or so minutes of screentime, which seems to be the norm for him these days. (If only we could see more of him.)
Cooper, who co-wrote the script with Brad Ingelsby, seems to understand the things actors want out of roles. Maybe that's one way he gets the best out of them, particularly in the case of Affleck. Even in some of his acclaimed performances — like the one he gave in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — Affleck often gives off the aura of trying too hard, albeit in his characteristically laid-back way. But here, with his watery, colorless voice and zonked-out gaze, he makes an extremely believable lost soul — you can see why Russell would strive to protect him. But the performance is even more interesting for the sparks of defiance Affleck shoots into it. The more Russell tries to coddle Rodney, the surlier he becomes. His pride is muddled, and ultimately defeated, by his aimlessness.
But it's Bale who's most surprising. Typically, he's a conscientious, thoughtful actor — maybe too thoughtful, as evidenced by the way his veins throb in his temples throughout those stolid, boring Batman performances. He's so intense, he can even control the rate at which blood flows through his body. But, oddly enough, even in this very serious-minded role, he's much looser and more relaxed than usual. His scenes with Saldana are the finest: He may be a heavily tattooed working guy, hardened by the usual life struggles, but his tenderness with her makes him seem almost fragile, a garden flower with muscles. In these moments, he's more like the old Bale, the one who was so extraordinary and perceptive in Gillian Armstrong's 1994 Little Women. Cooper may have gone overboard in delineating the hardships of blue-collar life in Out of the Furnace. But he has a gift for getting actors to put some muscle into their work, and enough finesse to make sure the sweat doesn't show.