There was a day when this Northeastern part of the country was whole. When Steel was king and Braddock, Penn., was a nice place, thriving with family and community. Russell Baze's father and his Uncle Red remember when it was so. He's heard them talk. But now the Rust Belt is exactly as the label implies: decaying, disintegrating.
In fact, Russell's dad―lying there in bed and dying from the inside out―is as good a symbol as any of how everything here has changed.
Russell tries not to give up. He wants to hold on. He wants to stand up and live up to his responsibilities. He wants to have a family someday, repaint, rebuild, work hard at the mill, survive. But everything keeps crumbling on him.
First there was his brother Rodney, who's being sucked deeper and deeper into a hopeless gambling debt between tours in Iraq. Russ tries to pay off that obligation with whatever extra cash he can scrape up, but the debt just grows and grows. Then there was that car accident. It really was an accident, but it landed Russell in jail on manslaughter charges.
Then his girlfriend walked out on him.
Rodney got into bloody bare-knuckle fighting.
His dad died.
And by the time Russell served his time and walked out a free man again, well, everything he had worked was gone. But he'll hold on. He'll find a job. He'll rebuild and repaint. He'll try to talk some sense into his kid brother's skull. And he'll fight to save something, just one little piece, before it all turns to dust.
It's clear from the start that Russell has devoted quite a lot of grit and sweat to dig out a decent life and be the man he believes he's expected to be. He works hard, stands by his family members, pays his brother's debts and longs to have a wife and kids of his own. In fact, even when the love of his life, Lena, leaves him while he's in prison, he tries to understand her position. "She's a smart woman, she's got her reasons," he says. And when he tries to reconcile with her―only to find out that she has become pregnant by another man―Russell weeps at Lena's good fortune and tells her what a great mom he's sure she will be.
(Unfortunately, Russell's love for his brother leads him down a dark, deadly and hopeless path. A not-positive state of affairs we'll continue to deal with in other sections.)
Uncle Red appears to be a good and well-grounded man―one of the few people like that in Russell's life. He tries repeatedly to help his nephew and steer him clear of trouble.
On two separate occasions pastors talk about the healing balm of faith. In one case a prison chaplain speaks of Jesus, saying, "With His stripes we are healed." In another, the local priest prays for God's forgiveness for the congregation. In both instances, Russell listens numbly, untouched by the words.
Uncle Red kneels and silently prays at his brother's (Russell's dad's) grave.
Russell and his girlfriend are seen in bed together. He's shirtless and she wears a cleavage-revealing tank top. Russell is forcibly propositioned for oral sex while in prison.
A disturbing opening scene sets the movie's hair-trigger, über-aggressive and violent tone as a heavy-drinking Harlan Degroat gets mad at his drive-in movie date, jams a hotdog down her throat and, while she gasps and gags, slams her head into the car dashboard. A guy from the next vehicle over steps up to the window to make sure the woman is OK—and Degroat proceeds to beat the man senseless.
We later find out that Degroat is the head of an Appalachian hillbilly crime gang that runs drugs and sets up bare-knuckle fights for profit. As such we see a number of vicious fistfights that end with spurting blood, slashed, bloodied and swollen faces, and a broken bone or two. Also in connection with Degroat and his thugs, two men are shot in the face and another executed with a bullet to the top of the head. In all cases hemoglobin and gristle splatter everywhere.
Scenes of a particularly bloody fight weave in and out of images showing two men hunting a deer―felling the animal, then skinning and gutting the carcass with a knife. Russell is beaten severely while in prison (for refusing the demand for oral sex). On the outside he beats a man's face with the butt of his rifle (splitting open the guy's nose), punches and pummels the guy and then shoots him torturously in various parts of his body until finally killing him with a bullet to the head.
An accidental car crash results in deaths. (We see the unmoving legs of a dead child in the car's backseat.) Rodney talks of his time in Iraq and his inability to "unsee" the horrible things he's witnessed, including a baby's head getting cut off and a pile of dismembered feet in the road.
Crude or Profane Language
Over 80 f-words and 20 s-words. Those expletives are joined by a handful of uses each of "d‑‑n," "b‑‑ch," "a‑‑" and "h‑‑‑." God's and Jesus' names are misused a half-dozen or more times each ("God's combined with "d‑‑n" five times). Crude or obscene references are made to male and female genitalia. Several people flip a middle finger.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Degroat is said to be motivated by only two things: money and drugs. We watch him cook up and inject himself with one hard drug. Later, when trying to find the bad dude, Russell starts tracking him down by buying crack from sellers in his neighborhood. (Russ refuses to use any of it.)
Beer, hard liquor and even moonshine is downed throughout the pic by all the main characters. A local gambler smokes cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
Sure. Pretty much everything else in this dark and diseased movie.
Hollywood films are generally seen through either an entertainment or inspirational lens. Superhero franchises like Thor or Iron Man, for instance, are made to give us a thrill. Other dramas, like Philomena or 12 Years a Slave are designed to teach social lessons about humanity and/or its culture.
With the right cinematic squint, then, this pic could be said to be making allegorical statements about working class decay, and declarations about the perceived American tendency to descend into violent retribution in times of injustice. In that vein, Variety reviewer Scott Foundas even likened Out of the Furnace to "an Iraq-era bookend to The Deer Hunter."
That kind of artistic parsing, though, tends to credit this bleak, one-dimensional revenge pic with far more than it really deserves. The performances from the likes of Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker are beautifully delivered, to be sure. But from beginning to end, the film itself is an ugly convulsion of troglodyte ferocity, decaying morality, malignant profanity and dead-eyed vengeance.
Entertainment? Not a lick. Inspiration? All burned up by the fire. Only loss and despair are left.