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'Out of the Furnace' review: Great acting, cold justice

*** (out of four)

When you meet a dude with a tattoo on his throat that reads "Cut throat," you know you are in, uh, rough territory.

Russell (Christian Bale) sees this first-hand when he heads from his not-exactly-upscale Pennsylvania steel mill town to the mountains in isolated New Jersey, searching for his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rodney has served four tours in Iraq (the film is set in '08), and asserts that he has done more for his country than his country's done for him. He's different than he used to be, he tells Russell. He's seen things that can't be unseen.

"Out of the Furnace" comes from director/co-writer Scott Cooper, who doesn't recapture the precise, lived-in excellence of his "Crazy Heart" but delivers plenty of nicely descriptive language that the cast chomps into like a gourmet burger. "This [bleeper] drives itself," mutters Harlan (a fantastic and unsettling Woody Harrelson) after his date to the drive-in asks if he'll be able to drive while sick and drunk. When Russell casually asks his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) how he's doing, the man responds, "Still on this side of the grass." Obviously, that's as mild as optimism gets. These guys are passing time, and it's passing them by.

With flickers of last year's "Killing Me Softly," this Internet-free, debt-riddled world of working-class men and outsider justice doesn't click into place like "Winter's Bone." Cooper should have directly explored the government's lack of care toward veterans, not just brought it up. Russell's drunken car accident and subsequent incarceration recall "Another Earth" and the notion of one moment derailing a life, as his girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) doesn't stick with her convict boyfriend long. It's revealing to see Russell's occupation not change much in and out of prison.

Still, sequences of hunting and hand-to-hand combat consider what it takes to attack someone, or something, looking you in the eyes. And sometimes a bunch of pros putting on a tough show just does the trick. In "Out of the Furnace," the deadly game makes up for the sense of having played parts of it before.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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