Movie Review: ‘Furnace’ wrestles with tough questions

Immediate and meandering, melodramatic and subtle, “Out of the Furnace” is defined by its contradictions. It will turn off anyone who desires a definitive confluence of plot and themes, and challenge those comfortable with ambiguity.

Shot mainly on location in the dying steel mill setting of Braddock, Pa., the film follows two brothers who take different approaches to making a living. Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, the elder, and Casey Affleck gives a gut-wrenching performance as Rodney.

An Iraq war veteran, Rodney is haunted by grisly wartime memories, while Russell has never been “east of Scranton.” Rodney resents his brother for spending his entire adult life working in the same mill that is killing their father.

But Russell is proud of his working-class job, proud of where he’s from, and is an altogether good man with bad luck who often bears the burden of his reckless younger brother. When Rodney goes missing after a few bouts as an underground brawler, Russell defies the law and tracks down the brutal crime lord he suspects is responsible for his brother’s disappearance.

As Russell, Bale proves once again he is one of today’s finest actors. His role here, though not the kind of bravado performance that earned him an Academy Award, commands a deeply physical presence that only he can provide. He’s the grounding factor in a film that doesn’t always know what to do with its talented cast, which includes Woody Harrelson and Zoe Saldana, who is criminally underused.

Perhaps that’s because the film’s central character is really its setting. Meant to evoke the desperations of economic hardship and the obsolescence of American industry, the city of Braddock is framed in a way to suggest it exists somewhere out of time; its opaque sky, pale and yellow, smothers the land in a purgatorial glow, as if the city’s inhabitants are already dead.

Thus, “Out of the Furnace” is an unexpectedly religious film, exploring the tension between moral law and institutionalized notions of justice. Russell is even something of a Jesus figure. Often foregrounding brilliant rays of light to symbolize his saintly status, he endures the sins of others to keep them safe.

When he confronts the grim underbelly of humanity and does things not everyone will approve of, the film neither condemns him nor advocates his actions. But not for lack of ambition. Many movies will take a neutral stance on moral matters to avoid controversy and allow audiences to make up their own minds.

“Out of the Furnace” is unique. Its moral ambiguity seems to come from a sincere confusion at how decent human beings should deal with evil and injustice. To make this point, the film deliberately avoids tying up some glaring loose ends.

Not many movies come along that are so openly uncertain about the ramifications of their characters’ actions. It’s a thematic statement bold enough to balance out the movie’s flaws, which are, mostly technical: the pacing is a little uneven and some characters are underdeveloped.

Ultimately, “Out of the Furnace” will divide audiences. It’s rarely a pleasant experience; in some scenes, characters we care about are beaten to a pulp, while others are outright slaughtered and tossed into the woods like animals.

But the film is not here to please. It would rather succumb to that murky, intractable landscape between right and wrong before making claims of moral authority just for the sake of appearances and ticket sales.

3 stars out of 4.

Rated R for strong violence, language and drug content.