“This ain’t no place for the weary kind,” say the lyrics to the theme song from Scott Cooper’s first film, Crazy Heart. That was a film about (among other things) troubled families and the price of trying to fix things that have gone wrong, but it also grounded those topics in a thoroughly American story of country music and honky-tonks. It makes sense that Cooper’s decided to focus once more on the plight of fractured American systems with Out of the Furnace, though his new film feels like a mirrored nightmare of his earlier one. Where that film saw people reckoning with their lives, this one finds them overwhelmed by them; and while Cooper’s earlier film used American touches to define its characters and their story, this one finds them imprisoned by those same touches. People here are helpless against the whims of the economy, the facelessness of the criminal justice system, and the destructive machinery of the military stop-loss. It’s a dark, grim American fable that brutally captures the lengths some people will travel to hide from the world they can’t shut out. They’re the weary kind, but they don’t have anywhere to go.
Cooper, who wrote the script with Brad Ingelsby, establishes the story in a series of loose, elliptical bursts that deftly use design and character to set up location and plot. This isn’t just a gimmick, either, but a pointed way to highlight the sick, quick turns life can take, especially when you’re already on the margin. Skipping through time doesn’t feel abnormal here, nor does it feel like Cooper’s weighed down by too much story. Instead, judicious editing and match cuts keep the story flowing quietly and powerfully forward. The early parts of the film take place in 2008, as Russell Baze (Christian Bale) toils away at the steel mill in Braddock, Pennsylvania, to support his sick and ailing father. Russell’s brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), is a soldier home from Iraq but stop-lossed and heading back soon, killing time at the OTB and kicking in frustration at the frayed edges of the small life he can see himself leading. Little chapters blended together track the family up to the present, as Russell finds himself battling personal setbacks and Rodney comes and goes from the war, pushed further into anger and depression.
The adjective “novelistic” is often used as a substitute for “big” or “sweeping,” but it’s just as true to use it to reflect a film’s patient, insightful devotion to small stories and internalized change. The first third of the film functions as a rough prologue, establishing the Baze brothers, the hardship of their situation, and Rodney’s growing fascination with and reliance on a local bar owner and low-level criminal named John Petty (Willem Dafoe) whom Rodney believes can be his ticket out. Cooper’s pacing is spot on, never too fast or too slow, and in the film’s central third that he begins to draw his disparate elements together and explore the nature of sacrifice and futility. There’s a lengthy, masterful sequence devoted to two parallel chunks of plot: Russell hunting deer with his uncle (Sam Shepard), and Rodney traveling with Petty up into the hill country to participate in an underground bare-knuckle boxing match overseen by a drug dealer and sociopath named Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Editor David Rosenbloom cuts things together perfectly, and Cooper never hammers too hard on the visual metaphors. He doesn’t have to. Watching Russell track the deer, you can feel Rodney taking on the role of the prey hundreds of miles away. It’s the longest sustained sequence in the film, along with the climax, and its relentlessness and lurking terror make it impossible to turn away.
That’s what Cooper’s really after here: relentlessness. Every step of the film follows naturally and inexorably from the one before it, and the lurid, pulpy nature of the plot avoids being outlandish thanks to Cooper’s focus on the characters. They act naturally, driven by the desires we’ve seen them displaying all along, whether that means they want to damage themselves or those around them. The major turning points here, as in life, are over in an instant. Everything else is either build up or release, anticipation or reaction. Things can’t be undone, either. Cooper makes it clear that quests for redemption that seek to bring back the past are doomed to fail, and that the only thing we can do is adapt to change, live with our mistakes, and do what we feel has to be done. If that sounds, well, vague, please know that it’s not. It’s just that so much of Out of the Furnace hinges on the kind of shocks that upend the character’s lives, as they would anyone’s, and part of the film’s power is in the way it parcels out those moments. Discussing to many of them them here might make for a better dissection, but then, it would also mean killing the thing to pull it open.
The film’s deepest strength is in its twin leads. Bale, in a rangy Southern mode, does some of his best and most compelling work in years, at turns broken down by the hand he’s dealt and forcefully resolved to fight back when his family is threatened. Affleck, though, is perfect. As an actor, his best work has been playing men struggling to reconcile the world around them with the version of reality they create for themselves (like his eerie and sad killer in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). His portrayal of Rodney is pitiable but never pathetic, and he realistically inhabits the role of a shaken warrior without resorting to cliche or overacting. He’s so good you forget how good he is, and though the film builds — as it’s destined to — toward a confrontation between Russell and DeGroat, it’s the jagged shadow of Rodney that gives the film its real shape.
In fact, it’s Rodney’s journey that provides the real meaning of the film. He’s a poor kid from a broke town, and his military service leaves him scarred in every way. Doors are shut in front of him, and he’s never more than a few mistakes away from total tragedy. Things are hard all over, Cooper seems to be saying, and there’s precious little relief in trying to fight them. For some people — for the weary kind, if you want — there’s no way out. No happy trail to walk down. Even if you beat the villain, what do you get? What does it take from you to do it? Not enough, and too much.