The sound of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder unleashing his baritone bellow over a film’s opening credits usually means two things: The movie will be About America and it will be grim, purposeful going. “Out of the Furnace” stays the course. A twitchily well-acted melodrama of burnt-out lives, family ties, and backwoods revenge, Scott Cooper’s sophomore outing as director — his first, 2009’s “Crazy Heart,” won Jeff Bridges an Oscar — offers a bleak vision of our country’s rural economic woes before flattening out into a routine thriller about good men doing bad things.
It starts promisingly, with a hellacious scene of Woody Harrelson beating a man nearly to death at a drive-in movie. His character is a New Jersey sociopath named Harlan DeGroat, apparently the psychobilly kingpin of crime west of the Ramapos. So far, so bizarre, so good, and Masanobu Takayanagi’s surreally steady camerawork increases the sense that we’re in for something special.
“Out of the Furnace” then moves farther west, to a Pennsylvania steel town where Russell Baze (Christian Bale, gaunt, greasy, and noble) works in the mills, cares for his dying father (Bingo O’Malley), and makes sure his no-good brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) stays out of trouble between tours of Iraq. The film’s depiction of dead-end poverty accepted almost as a matter of course — of an America that chews up its young men and spits them out broken and old — is powerfully observed, at least in the film’s early going. The movie alternates between barely repressing its fury at a society’s abandonment of its citizens and goggling at the tattooed, methed-up freaks.
Cooper has an elliptical narrative sense that initially keeps us on our toes. A sudden change in Russell’s fortunes lands him behind bars, and the character settles into his fate with regal futility — Bale is good at suggesting the effort it takes for Russell to remain above despair. When he’s released after a few years, his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) has moved in with the local police chief (Forest Whitaker), and a traumatized Rodney is touring the backwoods bare-knuckle fight circuit. He’s supposed to take dives for his promoter boss John (Willem Dafoe), but the PTSD keeps making him forget.
By now we’re waiting for Harrelson to return and breathe nasty life back into the movie. DeGroat — even his name shudders with a screenwriter’s class fears — is a bad mutha who doesn’t like shifty small-town promoters or their fighters crashing his game, and eventually Russell and his trusty Uncle Red (Sam Shepard, another signifier of macho heartland artistry) have to cross state and moral lines to do what men have to etc.
Filmmaker Cooper is from the Virginia part of Appalachia, and “Out of the Furnace” knows better than most movies the specifics of its way of life: The settings and the faces here sag with postindustrial decay. Saldana could have received the Hollywood hair-and-makeup treatment but she hasn’t; her character, Lena, is just a pretty girl in a dying town that’s slowly taking her with it. As in the recent “The Place Beyond the Pines” — with which “Out of the Furnace” shares some plot points and partly realized ambitions — we’re confronted with a wrecked, rudderless America the media prefer to ignore.
The movie flirts with genre, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — the fight scenes and Affleck subplot could have come straight from a 1940s boxing noir. Yet the tone of neo-Shakespearean seriousness drains the movie’s drive and ultimately turns it generic. Some of Cooper’s ideas fall flat, like a portentous sequence that crosscuts between Russell and Uncle Red on a deer hunt and Rodney being bare-knuckled to a pulp. By the violent but dramatically inert finale, the movie seems to have thrown in the towel, and an inscrutable final image doesn’t save it.
“Out of the Furnace” could have been a starkly powerful human drama or a cheesy, vibrant action film. It splits the difference and ends up playing like a lesser Springsteen song.