Some people can take a punch for a living. Not many, mind you, and for good reason. As your first film makes abundantly clear, there's very little glory in getting beaten to a pulp to earn a buck. Sure, for the most part you only have to look like you're taking a bruising (I hope); but Out of the Furnace is made with enough grit that I could almost taste those cut lips and blood-soaked tears. It's a strong film about characters constantly at the breaking point. Until, of course - SNAP.
The fighter you no doubt stood in for was Rodney Baze Jr. (Casey Affleck), a returning Iraq veteran who can't stomach the idea of working at the town mill like his brother Russell (Christian Bale). So instead, he gets mixed up in the world of underground fighting to try and pay off his debts. Woody Harrelson plays the sadistic ring-leader behind the business, in a role that leaves exactly zero room for empathy or understanding. He's simply a blunt force of antagonism, no more complicated than a fist to the face. He tends to overshadow the film's other conflicting elements, such as PTSD and the failing U.S economy of 2008.
The latter is most interesting. Much like Killing The Softly, the characters in this film often sit in bars listening to Obama's first presidential campaign promises, which bounce off the walls with a contemporary echo of disillusionment. There's very little hope and change to be found in co-writer and director Scott Cooper's sophomore film. Instead, it's simply the grind of misfits and ex-cons trying to realign themselves with the new outsourced America. The war, the prison, and the fights may take the greatest physical toll, but that's not what seems to have worn them down. In fact, those are the only institutions that seem to make any sense to them.
There is, however, some light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of the always lovely Zoe Saldana, playing Bale's ex- and (he hopes) future-girlfriend. But in a refreshing change of pace for this type of high-strung drama, he doesn't try to win her over by fighting with her current boyfriend (Forest Whitaker). His strategy is more elegant and endearing, dancing around her and trying to draw her in slowly. Until, of course, things go really wrong in his life and he's pushed back into survival mode.
What the film lacks in originality, it at least balances out with solid performances and a confident script. The final punch that's thrown into the story is a proper knock-out, but is strangely undermined by a last-second scene, which down-graded the resolution to only a technical knock-out. But hey, still a win, right?