Who wins when a movie suffers from an anvil-heavy identity crisis? In most cases, the answer to that one is Not You. But the actors? They can come out winners if they know what they're doing. Three films in one, Out of The Furnace doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. Is it a brooding, downbeat commentary on the destruction of the American blue collar dream? Is it an exploration of men burdened with the weight of destructive, received ideas about the efficacy of violence and old-fashioned masculinity? Or is it a methed-up revenge thriller where Woody Harrelson turns himself into a monster and shoots drugs into his big toe?
Constructing a framework of brotherly love and men striving for goodness, it's the story of Russell (Christian Bale), a steel mill welder who loves his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) and takes care of his sick father. Brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), repeatedly stop-lossed in the Iraq War -- set in the recent past of 2008, we see snippets of election coverage on a bar TV -- is home again and failing to make sense of civilian life. He loses loans while off-track betting, he recoups it by participating in bare-knuckled alley brawls. He descends into the kind of life people don't come back from. And when Rodney enters the company of Extremely Bad Hill People (led by Harrelson) and then disappears, Russell takes justice into his own hands.
That second-half lurch into drive-in movie vigilantism, from a less earnest filmmaker, would have been a trashy pleasure to watch. But then Bale and his fellow A-listers wouldn't be in it. Director/co-writer Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) doesn't allow himself the freedom to get as genuinely dirty as a move into exploitation territory requires. He's still intent on making a film that means something. We don't know exactly what, but you don't recruit Eddie Vedder to moan on the soundtrack for a remake of Road House.
So in rides that cast to the rescue. Each one -- Willem Dafoe, Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepherd, Saldana, Bale, Affleck and Harrelson -- takes the serious material and lives in it respectfully, unshowily, aware that understatement is enough and caricature is a deep, ugly, condescending pit when films about the struggling class are inhabited by rich, pretty movie stars, even when the plot demands they stalk, chase and smash skulls with the butt-ends of rifles.
There's plenty of earnest suffering for everyone -- at one point, a minister sets the tone of righteous sacrifice by repeating a verse about Christ being "bruised for our iniquities" -- but the urge to jazz up the economic, spiritual and political mortification of small town life with the hyperactive sideshow brutality of inbred lunatics is too tempting for Cooper to resist. Yes, this country hates its working poor, the movie is saying, and violence is often a sad fact of existence for people whose hopes are systematically beaten into dust by the rigged game of contemporary American life. But now let's have a good time at the movies watching them murder each other for sport.