Gray and gritty, Out of the Furnace’s visual finish suggests the final cut was dragged through the dirt of the movie’s Rust Belt setting, and that’s just one layer of a very shrewd aesthetic. No longer playing second fiddle to a show-stealer like Jeff Bridges, the Oscar-winning star of his debut feature, Crazy Heart, director Scott Cooper is given ample room to prove his filmmaking mettle with this rough-hewn follow-up, a thriller whose strategic, exposition-dodging design proceeds with near-total effortlessness. A canny visual storyteller, Cooper lets his imagery do the talking, and it’s ultimately fitting that the movie kicks off with a bloody bang at a drive-in. Not only does the oddball opener introduce the sociopathy of antagonist Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), who beats his date and a bystander while watching the 2008 adaptation of Clive Barker’s The Midnight Meat Train, it emphasizes Cooper’s old-school respect for the viewer experience of careful, collective looking, pulling back to show the outdoor screen within the screen, and the spectators ogling it like motorists at church.
Most of the hard-hitting revelations and resonant themes in Out of the Furnace come via Cooper’s visual clues, compositional echoes, and keen instinct for when and how to release information for maximum effect. Who the characters are, what they mean to each other, where they’ve been, and even where they live is all disclosed thanks to a tattoo, a police-cruiser’s decal, a passing mention of a death, or a condemned storefront. We only learn that feral, volcanic Rodney Baze (a career-best Casey Affleck) is ex-military when he casually leaves a room after donning his uniform, and we don’t learn when he served—or when this all takes place—until a background news broadcast shows Ted Kennedy endorsing Obama’s first election (Rodney is also later seen with “Operation Iraqi Freedom” inked on his flesh). Likewise, the fact that a tragic first-act incident lands Rodney’s brother Russell (Christian Bale) in prison is only unveiled through a sly and sparing series of shots: Already established as a steel worker, Russell is shown toiling in a mill-like factory before a few abrupt cuts depict where he truly is, displaying the prison’s yard, and then its walls, and then its gates. The montage is capped off with the brothers seated together in a visiting area, which is also photographed tight before a wider view shows that it’s encaged.
Though Cooper consistently uses formal parallelism to link the brothers’ dual narratives, this last shot may be Out of the Furnace’s most telling, as it speaks to the prison that is the Baze boys’ daily lives, whether behind bars or outside of them, on the front lines or at home. Without ever forcing a schmaltzy PTSD agenda, or worse, a redundant commentary on that there economy, Cooper’s backwoods yarn, co-written by Brad Ingelsby, smartly and objectively explores justice on the macro level before whittling its way down to the micro. The movie highlights society’s shortcomings in taking continuing care of its servicemen and its rehabilitated, but also the potentially damning choices those same folks can make, particularly in desperate lands of lesser opportunity. Rodney served his time (and only fleetingly reveals the horrors that scarred him), but he feels he deserves more than his family’s quotidian millwork, instead earning fast cash in underground fights for crime boss John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Russell served his, too, but he’s still screwed upon release, learning his mill may go under thanks to Chinese outsourcing, and that Lena (Zoe Saldana), the ex he hoped to regain, is pregnant by Wesley (Forest Whitaker), a man she doesn’t love, and trapped in her own cage.
Just as Cooper uses grace when mirroring frames to underscore the home and prison connections (the staging of Russell’s wrenching encounter with Lena is a copy of that of a grueling prison fight), he never flaunts the incredible cast at his disposal. Conversely, he tasks his actors to work in tandem with Out of the Furnace’s flow of info, their characters trickling in when utterly necessary, and serving each other, and the story, in ways both unexpected and enriching (a barely spoken hatchet-burying between Russell and Wesley, a local cop, is an especially elegant encounter, illustrating the painful, yet necessary, closing of a love triangle).
But what this movie finally boils down to is a deceptively simple tale of two brothers, and of being one’s brother’s keeper, and of seeking justice on the crudest of fronts. When a deal involving crazed cinema-goer DeGroat turns sour, Out of the Furnace turns into a barebones tale of vigilantism, which, in plumbing a subculture that’s already functionally anti-establishment (DeGroat and his goons are Jersey’s finest untouchable “inbreds”), gives its antiheroes a yet more primal form of the agency long denied them. Cooper doesn’t clinch the whole of his technique, and there are sequences, specifically a lengthy bit of crosscutting involving predator and prey, that betray the film with their obviousness and manipulation. Nevertheless, if taken as a sign of where this director is headed, Out of the Furnace is a highly promising, exacting work of gruffness and delicacy.