Out of the Furnace proceeds at a leisurely pace. It opens with a scene that I could have done without, where a hillbilly gangster scumbag named Harlan Degroat beats up his date and someone else at a drive in theater. The movie establishes that Harlan, played wonderfully by Woody Harrelson, is about as evil as one can get. Switch to Russell Baze, played pensively by Christian Bale, who is trying to keep his life together working at a steel mill and dealing with his aimless battle scarred military brother, played admirably by Casey Affleck. His brother keeps getting into debt with bookies and Russel keeps bailing him out. Things do not go well for Russell when he is sent to prison for a fatal auto accident that was not his fault, but he had had a couple of drinks which did not look good. After getting out of prison, he goes back to work at the steel mill, but his problems with his brother escalate, which slowly builds up to a confrontation with Harlan Degroat.
All the performances in this film are wonderful, including Zoe Saldana as Russel's ex girlfriend, and Forrest Whitaker, who is always great, as Sheriff Barnes, and William Dafoe as a low life bookie. This movie is driven by great performances, because the plot takes it time building up to any kind of action. However, the film doesn't meander. Every scene moves the story to the next plot point and the next great performance by the actors. The tone of the movie reminded me of What's Eating Gilbert Grape, although it is considerably more interesting.
The film steals one scene from The Dear Hunter, where Russell, who is so damaged by life, decides to not shoot a deer on a hunting trip.
I have to take issue with Roger Ebert's review of the movie, who said that for long stretches it doesn't know what it wants to be. I think that the film knows exactly what it wants to be. The point is exactly the same as the point of Hell or High Water, where poverty is the overwhelming force that drives people who could have potentially been good to do bad things. Like that movie, people are trapped in the world they grew up in. Believable performances lead to an inevitable "Taxi Driver" type of conclusion. The journey to get there is one that I found very compelling.
Rating: * * * 1/2
Out of the Furnace has just a 53% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I think that it is an underappreciated gem. The great performances make it well worth watching.