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Christian Bale racks up another career highlight performance as Russell Baze, a good but deeply flawed man at the end of his tether in Out of the Furnace, a strong, deeply American film from writer-director-to-watch Scott Cooper. Baze is an endearing dead-end ex-con and mill worker who, in a relationship reminiscent of that between Keitel and DeNiro in Mean Streets, attempts to look out for his war-damaged deadbeat brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). Rodney is in debt but uninterested in conventional employment, leading to his involving himself in the dangerous world of underground fighting.

Out of the Furnace stands as a stark statement that the American Dream is deceased. Its rust belt setting rings all too true, and a barroom television moment more subtle than a similar scene in 2012’s Killing Them Softly shows that Obama’s hope-and-change rhetoric has no reality for the typical working (or unemployed) stiff. Out of the Furnace is a film of its time and timely, its story enthralling, with each frame carrying fascination and a feeling of immediate importance.

Those who enjoy tense, earthy family dramas and character studies with gritty, realistic settings – movies like Sling Blade, Mud, or The Place Beyond the Pines – are certain to appreciate Out of the Furnace, which, in addition to the showcased character creation of Christian Bale, features sharp supporting performances from Forest Whitaker, Sam Shepard, Zoe Saldana, and Willem Dafoe. Deserving special recognition, furthermore, is Woody Harrelson, frightening light-years from Cheers here as hillbilly drug kingpin Harlan DeGroat. Harrelson’s hot dog moment in the opening scene sets the grotesque, tenebrous tone of the film and constitutes the most shocking piece of fast food humiliation since the fried chicken scene in 2011’s Killer Joe.

5 stars. Highest recommendation.

Ideological Content Analysis indicates that Out of the Furnace is:

7. Diversity-skeptical. In one of his underground fights, Rodney is pitted against a black thug who taunts him, calling him “white boy” and mocking his military service. Pleasantly, Rodney makes a comeback and gives this rascal a vicious and racially charged beatdown.

6. Antiwar. Rodney comes back from Iraq as an angry and alienated man.

5. Protectionist. The mill is scheduled to be shut down, with American jobs exported to China.

4. Pro-miscegenation. Notwithstanding no. 7, Russell is in love with brown beauty Lena (Zoe Saldana), but loses her after his stint in the pen.

3. Anti-drug. Drunk driving lands Russell in prison. Harder stuff turns Harlan DeGroat into a maniac.

2. Anti-redneck. Harlan DeGroat is the scariest white trash bad guy since Deer Crossing‘s Lukas Walton.

1. Pro-family. Russell Baze is driven by his devotion to his family, caring as best he can for his sick father and brother while both are still alive, and diligently avenging them after they are gone.

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