“That’s Mr. Motherfucker to you.” Pity the unnamed fellow who essays this comeback at Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) at the start of Out of the Furnace. Facing off at a drive-in theater somewhere in smalltown New Jersey, the guys seem equally matched in bulk and bad attitude, but the point of the scene is Harlan’s psychopathy.
He’s just smashed his girlfriend’s face into his dashboard when the would-be rescuer sticks his head in the window, rejecting Harlan’s descriptor — “motherfucker” — and imagining he’s tough enough to take him on. Harlan’s beating him to a pulp is framed long, slow pans and also in a climactic long shot, the drive-in screen looming and luminous (it’s The Midnight Meat Train). So now you know: Harlan is a monster.
This essential note shapes all that follows in Scott Cooper’s film, which goes on to set him against a pair of brothers (standing in for the rest of thee world), the nice guy steel mill worker Russell (Christian Bale) and the younger, more confused Rodney (Casey Affleck). By day, Russell works with molten metal and sparks; after hours, he visits his dad, lying in a hospital bed in his home, tended by his own brother, the severely loyal Red (Sam Shepard), as his body is broken by his lifelong work in the mills.
At better moments, fleeting, Russell lies in bed with his perfect girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana). That she works in a preschool sums up her function here, to embody the promise of a fecund future, a promise indicated by the brief moments she spends in early morning bed with her lithe youngish man, laughing, lovely, absolutely unlike the rest of his grim grey existence.
Lena’s laughter haunts that grim grey existence, however briefly. In the film that follows this early morning scene, only bad things happen. These are arranged in episodes that would be as clichéd as the signs of Lena’s all-goodness, save for the fact that they appear in smudgy, almost impressionistic images. Russell’s life-changing drunk driving accident, which sends him to prison, is rendered in a slash of harsh sound and illegible wreckage, his bloodied face so deeply shadowed that even as he sees what’s happened to the other car, you’re reading his gesturing arms, his stooping back, his hanging hair, rather than his face.
This visual indistinctness, so striking and so smart, characterizes Russell’s trajectory. If only the narrative were as lyrical, original, and thoughtful as this imagery. Instead, it turns increasingly predictable: Russell’s lack of options begin and end in the hopelessness represented by the mill, the crushing heat and fire of the furnace, the lack of air, the violence it does to bodies and souls.
In prison for his inadvertent but still awful crime, Rodney is visited by Rodney, who is in turn increasingly undone by his own off-screen experience in Iraq; enlisted at the start of the war (the time indicated by a bit of a Ted Kennedy speech on a background TV, a speech that now sounds monstrous in its own way), in order to find a way out. Rodney returns ruined, or, as he puts it, “I’m different than I was before I left… my head is just full of stuff and I can’t get it out.”
That “stuff,” unseen, is as toxic as any of the visible signs of breakdown, the grey hunkering over the horizon, the mill belching smoke, the wire coiling atop the prison walls. Rodney’s difference is not unlike Harlan’s, in their turns to violence as respite. Both are broken men, but Harlan is the film’s resident monster, and so he will be the focus of its not so original vengeance story. But as vicious and relentless as he so plainly is, Harlan’s also only an incarnation of a pervasive, systemic oppression.
Russell’s stint in prison, punctuated by beat-downs and bloodied faces, is of a piece with Rodney’s wartime experience, which, as traumatic as it is, is also of a piece with the debilitation brought on by the mill. And so Rodney turns into something like a Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter, so ravaged that all he can do is fight, bare-knuckled and scrawny, making money for local gangster types like John (Willem Dafoe) and Harlan.
At the same time, Russell turns into Robert De Niro, seeking peace in another sort of violence, out hunting with Red and yet, unable to shoot the deer in his sights. Like Lena and Rodney, like Harlan’s girlfriend and Lena’s well-meaning new boyfriend, Wesley (Forest Whitaker), a cop who means to keep order but can’t possibly, the deer signifies Russell’s possibilities receding.