An odd prologue sets the tone and establishes the central subject of "Out of the Furnace." Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a rural drug dealer and gang leader, anonymous at that point in the film, watches a movie at a drive-in theater, complains of feeling nauseated, then when his girlfriend expresses concern, shoves a hot dog down her throat and bangs her head against the car window. When another man intervenes, DeGroat beats him brutally, hops in his car, and takes off.
The shocking, explosive violence and its hint of sadism run in a bloody stream throughout the picture. Set in a grimy steel town, it shows the difficult lives of a couple of young men, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) and his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). Russell works at the steel mill, while Rodney, suffering post-traumatic stress after four tours of duty in Iraq, spends his time drinking and gambling, occasionally making money in bare-knuckle boxing bouts organized by the town bookie, John Petty (Willem Dafoe).
The central action of the movie involves those boxing matches, the means by which Rodney hopes to pay off his gambling debts and try to make a new start. He persuades the reluctant Petty to arrange a high-stakes match in an area of rural New Jersey where DeGroat runs all the criminal activity. Because he cannot control his rage, Rodney almost wins a bout he's supposed to lose, absorbing a horrible beating in the process. After that, DeGroat exacts a vicious revenge on both Rodney and Petty.
The treatment of his brother represents only one in a series of harsh blows that Russell suffers, including imprisonment for a fatal automobile accident, the death of his father, and the loss of Lena (Zoe Saldana), the woman he loves. When the police chief (Forest Whitaker) confesses his impotence to deal with the people in the Appalachian country controlled by DeGroat, Russell resolves to seek justice on his own.
The picture's plot moves in odd jumps and pauses. For instance, after Russell's accident, with no explanation, no arrest or trial, it shows him in prison, enduring an existence only a little less cruel and brutal than the life he led before. It also depends heavily on a series of silences, interrupted occasionally by laconic dialogue and cryptic asides. The director employs a great many establishing shots — of the smoky steel mill, the shabby, cramped working-class neighborhoods, the empty countryside — to fill in the spaces in the plot and the mostly unspoken exchanges of its people.
Paradoxically enhanced by its persistent darkness and understatement, the movie simply overflows with a particularly distressing brutality. Difficult to watch, the bare-knuckle boxing matches provide a kind of mirror for all the bloody beatings and shootings that intensify the picture's overwhelming atmosphere of bleakness and despair. Its people suffer in silence, their inner feelings emerging mostly in moments of physical pain and bloodshed.
The outstanding cast meshes perfectly with the somber and depressing tone of the movie: in keeping with its action and meaning, everybody underplays with a remarkable consistency. In small roles, Forest Whitaker as the local police chief and Willem Dafoe suggest a genuine humanity within the confines of relatively limited characters.
The dominant figures in the film, naturally, are the protagonist Russell Baze and his antagonist Harlan DeGroat, convincingly played by Christian Bale and Woody Harrelson. As a scary, vicious thug who clearly enjoys the hell out of hurting people, Harrelson performs with a real sense of evil. He's a man anyone would hate, and for good reason; he makes a most acceptable villain. Christian Bale behaves with remarkable restraint and control, a totally credible portrayal of a sad, decent man who must take action against the evil world around him.
Among its other revelations, "Out of the Furnace" provides a very different picture of New Jersey from the usual media images. It's not the state of Chris Christie or Tony Soprano, but a blood-soaked slice of rural America populated by gangsters, rednecks, drug dealers and users, people cooking up meth and viewing every outsider with a leering hostility, where even the police fear to act. Not exactly the Garden State.