The joys of “Out of the Furnace” are nearly enough to overcome its ultimate letdown. The cast, for starters, is an embarrassment of riches: Christian Bale as a sturdy steel mill worker; Casey Affleck as his war-haunted brother; Woody Harrelson as a scummy backwoods bare-knuckle boxing czar. The story moves quickly but without hitting rote notes. The sets and the setting — a crumbling steel town full of claustrophobic houses — imbue it with a sense of authenticity it almost maintains.
The Rust Belt noir skids in the third act, but until then, it’s a fun, dark dip into American corrosion. The Pennsylvania of “Furnace” recalls the old James Carville quote about that state being Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in between. The Appalachian locales scored with banjo pickin’ recall “Deliverance,” as surely as an excursion into the woods rhymes with “The Deer Hunter,” another Pennsylvania steel picture. Director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart”) is taking big bites in his second feature, and for most of the film, it’s clear he knows what he’s doing.
For Bale’s virtuousness in the early going — laughing in bed with his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) and trying to keep his little brother in good with a loan-sharking bar owner (Willem Dafoe) — he avoids the earnest blandness that befalls so many blue-collar film heroes. Then, he makes a grave mistake, and needs to go away for a while. When he returns, his brother has done another tour in Iraq, his lady has taken up with the local police chief (Forest Whitaker) and he has little to do but put his life back in order. His brother, though, seems intent on getting mixed up with illicit mill brawling. He gets connected to the Harrelson contingent — Dafoe sneeringly derides them as, simply, “the inbreds” — and some bad things happen.
Opportunity’s slow fade hangs low over the characters. There’s a freedom that comes with reduced options; Bale, for one, checks into the same mill where his father worked, and seems content to put beer on the table, take care of his home, hunt with his uncle. This is an old-fashioned American life, except, perhaps, for the unremarked-upon miscegenation of Bale bedding Saldana. The cars are throwback muscle or else they are trucks. The cell phones flip shut. Even as modern men these guys are late adopters.
Affleck’s soldier can’t see taking up this life. He gambles and he fights, and he refuses to join his brother at the mill. He’s falling apart, and if that gives him any shred of clarity, it’s in his refusal to seek refuge on a sinking ship. Instead he stands nose-to-nose with Harrelson, who, in playing perhaps the darkest character of his career, stares right back at the irascible vet and eats a sucker (hello, foreshadowing).
The Harrelson thug is so chilling and raw that he deserves a richer explanation, in fact. He and the others are a part of a darkly satisfying version of rural-industrial grit. But where’s the vision, when it’s all done? Without a stronger sense of what the hell it all means, the story dead-ends. “Furnace” builds high hopes, on real merits. It winds up somewhere south of where it was aiming.