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OUT OF THE FURNACE: 3 ½ STARS. “you’ll almost want to play it in reverse.”

furnaceIn the future when dictionaries have been replaced by computerized data banks surgically implanted in our fingertips the entry for “bleak” will be excerpts from “Out of the Furnace.”

Christian Bale stars as Russell Baze, a steel mill worker in America’s economically depressed Rust Belt. After doing time for vehicular manslaughter he emerges from jail to find his live-in girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) no longer lives in and his Iraq war vet brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) having trouble with civilian life.

Rodney is a tough guy. How tough?  “Four tours in Iraq tough,” says John Petty (Willem Dafoe), a low level gangster who also acts as Rodney’s manager in the bare- knuckle fight game.

As Russell tries to rebuild his life he is pushed to extremes when Rodney gets mixed up with Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a vicious hillbilly meth dealer who is so backwoods he drinks moonshine out of a mason jar. After someone asks him, “Do you have a problem with me?” he replies, “I got a problem with everybody.”

When Rodney goes missing after a fight run by DeGroat, Russell takes the law into his own hands to exact some vigilante justice.

The vengeance angle sounds Batmanesque but there isn’t a cowl or a cape in sight in “Out of the Furnace.” Instead this is a deliberately paced family drama that spends most of its running time setting up the circumstances that lead to the revenge angle.

“Crazy Heart” director Scott Cooper packs more bleakness in here than the most mournful George Jones song. Bad things happen to good people, hearts break and innocence is thrown out with the trash. It’s a portrait of a hard life drawn in hard edged detail, with no relief for the characters or for us.

Bale and Affleck are believable as brothers and hand in suitably intense performances but Harrelson is the most memorable character. Is there a better scuzzball in mainstream movies than Woody? He’s a menacing presence, twitchy and unpredictable with the worst teeth this side of the Appalachians.

Cooper hangs these fine performances on a framework so grim it’s hard to see what the point of the film is other than making audiences want to open a vein as the final credits roll. For all its pluses—the depiction of the treatment of soldiers coming home from war mixed with its take on family love and loyalty—and its singularity of director Cooper’s uncompromising vision, “Out of the Furnace” is so focused on the dark you almost want to play it in reverse. Like the old joke goes: What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your house back, get your wife back…

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