Russell Baze (Bale) is a small town Pennsylvania mill worker who grinds out a living the same way his father did before him. He's got a beautiful girlfriend Lena (Zoe Saldana) and a troublemaker brother Rodney (Affleck) whose gambling debts are beginning to mount. Russell attempts to settle his brother's gambling debts with local bookie John Petty (Dafoe) behind his brother's back, and on the eve of Rodney shipping out for another tour in Iraq, Russell drives home from a bar drunk and crashes into another car killing a mother and child.
Russell gets sent to jail, and upon his release, Lena has left him for the local sheriff (Whitaker) and his brother has gotten into the world of bare knuckle boxing in an attempt to settle substantial debts. Rodney goads Petty into letting him box in the Ramapo region of NJ where a drug kingpin (Harrelson) reigns supreme. But Rodney's inability to take a dive when there's money on the line may spell trouble for him and those he loves.
Gritty is a word that gets bandied about a lot these days, but Out of the Furnace has a truly gritty feel that makes it the only appropriate word to describe the film. Thank goodness that Cooper was able to secure the cast that he did as they all bring their A-game to the proceedings and lend the film a verisimilitude it wouldn't have had otherwise. The backwoods, small town life that he depicts here has a ton of truth to it, and this cast of superstar actors flesh it out in such a way that validates the bold choices made by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby in their screenplay. It feels very real and honest, never pulling any punches for the bulk of the film's running time.
However, the film's biggest problem is that it has a ridiculous third act that totally spoils the very good first two acts. As a matter of fact, the film's final half hour is so awful, it's likely to make you forget how good the rest of the film actually is. I won't delve into any spoilers here, but the film is almost entirely reminiscent of another film from a few months ago, A Single Shot, that similarly wandered off the range in the third act, but was redeemed to an extent by its stellar cast. Out of the Furnace doesn't suffer from that film's Winter's Bone copycat syndrome, but one begins to wonder if this was really the best possible way to end this story.
As mentioned several times now, the film's cast is outstanding, headlined by a remarkably turned down performance from Bale. He's an actor that always manages to surprise the audience with his choices, and just when you think you have him pegged, he takes a left turn you didn't see coming. Harrelson continues his hot streak of playing fantastically lived in characters, and you never doubt for a moment that he wields the kind of power that he does. This is an actor that is so unlike any other working today in that he can do virtually anything and make it truthful. I defy you to name me another actor that could be equally believable in films as diverse as Kingpin, Seven Psychopaths, The Hunger Games, and Now You See Me.
Dafoe, Affleck, Whitaker, Saldana and Shepard are equally good in their roles, as are the many periphery characters that flesh out this world. Cooper & Ingelsby's script is a model of economy for its first two thirds, and doles out information in a way that should make other writers envious of how well it handles exposition. The cut from the car accident to Russell in jail is masterfully done, as is the opening scene that beautifully sets up Harrelson's character, it's just a shame that the film had to wander off a cliff at the end into a climax that makes literally no sense.