Russell Baze (Christian Bale) works in a steel mill in Braddock, Pennsylvania. He is an honest, hardworking man with a dying father, a devoted uncle (Red – Sam Shepard,) a beautiful girlfriend (Lena - Zoe Saldana) and a disaffected younger brother (Rodney, Jr. - Casey Affleck,) Rodney has done several tours of active military duty in the Middle East. He has become angry and has lost direction in his life. His brother Russell, while occupied in a dead-end, dangerous job with a failing steel mill, has focus, values and commitment to making a better life for himself and Lena. Rodney eschews regular employment in favor of bare-knuckle prize-fighting in back alleys and sleazy joints.
Rodney is a tough guy who fancies pummeling other men with his fists for minimal financial return. The scenes of this hard-scrabble boxing matches are upsetting and brutal. While fighting Rodney shows no mercy and frequently refuse to comply with instructions from his handler John Petty (Willem Dafoe.) Petty owns a local bar and makes money arranging back-alley fights. While Petty is fundamentally a decent man, he participates in marginal activities with disreputable and dangerous characters. One such character is Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson.) Petty enables Rodney by lending him money and arranging fights for him.
Harlan DeGroat is a psychopath; or as they say in the medical world “a nut job.” He has a fuse so short that the most innocent of comments or actions is likely to send him into psychic, emotional and physical rage. Harrelson is perfect in this role. While we have all seen him as an innocent (Woody Boyd in "Cheers" 1985-1993,) or a comic character (Roy Munson in "Kingpin" 1996,) or a political advisor (Steve Schmidt in “Game Change” 2012 ;) he seems at his best playing a deeply disturbed sociopath. From the very first scene in “Out of the Furnace” to virtually the last scene of this unsettling film, Woody Harrelson (Harlan DeGroat) will have you anxiously balanced on the edge of your seat.
In the meantime Russell is involved in a fatal auto accident while driving under the influence of alcohol. He ends up in prison where he encounters more senseless brutality – it just keeps coming. When he gets out he learns that his beloved girlfriend Lena has taken up with Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker.) Russell’s and Rodney’s dad has passed away, Lena is gone and John Petty is deeply in debt to Harlan DeGroat. Against Petty’s advice Rodney insists on fighting one of DeGroat’s pugs in New Jersey. Everyone on the screen and in the audience knows that this is a very bad idea. Like a Greek Tragedy, everyone knows that it is going to end badly but cannot do anything about it. Petty and Rodney travel off to some remote part of New Jersey to duke it out with DeGroat’s fighter.
While the fight ends in the way DeGroat wants it to end, Harrelson’s seriously crazed character feels betrayed and summarily and insentiently disposes of Petty and Rodney in the remote woods of his mountain sanctuary. I will tell you no more of this part of the film – see it for yourself.
The remainder of this very edgy film is consumed by Russell’s search for and elimination of Harlan DeGroat. Again, see this for yourself – I can’t do it justice. In the process you will encounter the underbelly of a life-style that will cause you emotional distress and visual discomfort.
Bottom line – this Scott Cooper film is not for the faint of heart. It is a good but indelicate portrayal of a level of society that will leave you feeling anxious for some time.