Top form cast brightens the bleak Out of the Furnace

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Starring Casey Affleck and Christian Bale. Rated 14A.

Out of the Furnace focuses on two brothers struggling to cope with life in a dying Pennsylvania steel town. Rodney (Casey Affleck) is an emotionally unstable veteran who’s fighting a losing battle with his inner demons after four tours in Iraq. Russell (Christian Bale) is a gentle, sweet-tempered soul who works double shifts at the local mill to try and pay off his brother’s gambling debts.

The brothers are devoted to each other, which is just about the only thing they have going for them. While Rodney is losing his grip, Russell is trying to rebound from a strange twist of fate that earned him a stint in prison. The love of his life (Zoe Saldana) has left him for the town police chief (Forest Whitaker), and it looks like the steel mill—the town’s only real source of employment—is going to be shut down.

Things get even more complicated when Rodney tries to ease his financial burdens by boxing on the underground bare-knuckle circuit. Along the way, he gets entangled with a psychotic gangster (a genuinely scary Woody Harrelson). The consequences are tragic for Rodney. But they also have a grim effect on Russell, who gets drawn into his brother’s dark world.

In less talented hands, the plot could easily veer into a blue-collar version of Death Wish. Thankfully, cowriter and director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) has loftier ambitions. It’s hard to believe this is only Cooper’s second feature as a director. Although the backdrop here is uncompromisingly bleak, he lights our way with a thin thread of hope. What ultimately emerges is a remarkably subtle study in love, loss, and regret.

The cast is in top form. Casey Affleck turns in an Oscar-worthy performance as a young man who clings to his brother’s love as if it were a kind of lifeline. But it’s Christian Bale who treats us to what just might be the performance of his career. There’s nothing particularly showy about his approach. But it’s the sort of portrayal that insists on staying with you long after the lights come up.

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