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Within moments of meeting Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) at a drive-in theater, we watch him force a frankfurter down his date’s throat before slamming her head into the dashboard of his muscle car, after which he beats a wannabe Good Samaritan into a bloody pulp before physically throwing his battered date out of the car, menacing the rest of the gawking movie patrons and burning rubber all the way to the horizon. Without a shadow of a doubt, Harlan is one sonuvabitch, violence made flesh, like a rampaging, backwoods god of war.

On the other side of the rainbow from Harlan, we have Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a hard-working, salt-of-the-earth steel worker (just like his dear ol’ da) with a loving girlfriend, strong ties to the community and visions of starting a family in the near future. Russ is the kind of guy that everyone in town knows and likes, the kind of fella that’ll jump-start your car or lend you $20 (if he has it) without being asked. His tattoos hint at time spent in lockup but his attitude is all good intentions and honest attempts to walk the straight and narrow.

Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies Rodney Baze, Jr. (Casey Affleck), Russ’s younger brother. Rodney is an ex-Iraq War vet, full of pain, rage and the desire to do anything in life but waste away the remainder of his days in the steel mill, like his “weak” brother and dying father. He firmly believes that he did all the work he’ll ever need to do while in the Armed Forces: from this point on, the U. S. of A. owes him a living, not the other way around. To that end, he makes his money by participating in illegal bare-knuckle fights, most of which he throws, leading him to spend most of his days beat to absolute shit. When he’s not getting beat up for chump change, Rodney is blowing what little money he has at scuzzy off-track betting places, always chasing that elusive “big break,” the kind that routinely seems to pass by people like him and Russ.

The nexus where these three desperate individuals meet forms the crux of Scott Cooper’s powerful Out of the Furnace (2013), a bracing examination of the destructive power of vengeance and the haphazard way in which terrible things sometimes happen to very good people. Despite some minor missteps and a mystifying coda that raises more questions than it answers, Cooper’s film is a slow-burning powerhouse anchored by a dependably sturdy performance from Bale, a thoroughly authentic turn from Affleck and one of the scariest on-screen villains since Max Cady menaced the ever-loving shit out of Sam Bowden.

More than anything, Out of the Furnace is a tragedy, managing to fit almost every definition of the term: the film is relentlessly sad, no doubt, but it’s really about the ultimate downfall of an otherwise good (if flawed) individual. We pretty much like Bale’s Russ from the first time we see him: he’s a hard-working, no-nonsense, blue-collar guy who helps take care of his dying father, tries his damnedest to keep his squirrely brother out of trouble and seems to have a great relationship with his girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana). Although he’s no fabulously wealthy world-changer, Russ seems to have it all. Since this is a tragedy, of course, that means that he’s also going to lose it all.

Russ’ fatal flaw, as it is, ends up being the responsibility he feels for younger brother Rodney. After he finds out that Rodney owes $1500 to small-time gangster John Petty (Willem Defoe), Rodney’s partner in the illegal fighting racket, Russ sets out to make things right with Petty. Stopping by to drop off part of the money, Russ happens to run into Harlan and his associate, who’ve stopped by to menace Petty over the profits from another fight. Passing each other in the doorway, Harlan gives Russ such a stink-eye that he’s prompted to ask if Harlan “has a problem with him.” “I got a problem with everybody,” Harlan snarls back, setting the stage for future conflicts and heartache.

After sharing a few drinks with the jovial Petty, Russ takes off and collides, literally, with his destiny in the form of a broken-down car on an ill-lit country road: Russ slams into the car, which appears to contain a child and, despite doing all he can at the scene, his fate is sealed. When we next see Russ, he’s in prison, forsaken by all of his friends and family save for Rodney, who still comes to visit regularly. Lena, for her part, has moved on to someone else and Russ’ father has passed away, leaving Rodney as his only connection to the old life he once had.

Once he gets out, Russ sees how much everything has really changed. Rodney is now involved with John Petty more than ever, Harlan and his thugs hold the entire county under their brutal sway and Lena is dating Police Chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker): the couple are expecting their first child and, in a particularly raw scene, Russ congratulates Lena as the former lovers sob and hold each other. Life for Russ is harder than ever but he’s still committed to making the best of things.

A life of leisure, alas, is just not in the cards for these damaged individuals. After Rodney pressures Petty to get him involved with Harlan’s underground fights (brutal affairs that make back-alley grudge-matches look like WWE events), the pair realizes that they are very small fish in a pond stuffed to bursting with ravenous sharks. When Petty is found dead and Rodney disappears, Russ is forced to try to put together all of the pieces. When Chief Barnes seems more interested in keeping Rodney away from Lena than he does in finding Rodney, Russ decides to take matters into his own hands and conduct his own investigation. Hitting the streets with his uncle, Red (Sam Shepard), Russ traces Rodney’s movements right back to Harlan and his backwoods “mafia.” When the law is unable to help, however, Russ must turn his back on “polite” society and give in to the primal rage that drives a monster like Harlan: in order to confront ultimate evil, Russ must, in a way, become that evil. Since this is a tragedy, suffice to say that no one will emerge from this unscathed.

For my money, Out of the Furnace is one of the most “actorly” films I’ve seen in some time: while the occasional action moments hold plenty of impact and the film looks and sounds great, the performances are so rock-solid that they definitely become the focal point of the movie. As usual, Christian Bale completely loses himself in his performance, coming up with something that approaches a less tortured and/or emaciated version of his Trevor Reznik from The Machinist (2004). He ends up projecting such a likeable persona that you really feel bad when his world begins to come crashing around him: Russ is no stereotypical “white knight” but he seems like a genuinely good person. For his part, Affleck gives his most affecting performance, thus far: Rodney is a character that could have across as too self-serving and obnoxious but Affleck finds the core of the character and makes him feel less a cliché than another tragic extension of Russ’ wounded blue-collar soul. The scene where Rodney flips out and starts screaming at Russ could’ve come across as too highly strung, too melodramatic but Affleck and Bale find the inherent, blistered humanity in the moment. One of the greatest compliments I can pay the two is that there was no point in the film where I ever doubted that Russ and Rodney were brothers: the performances felt that authentic.

Towering above it all, however, is the mighty Woody Harrelson. While Harrelson has made a cottage industry out of playing sweet, slightly dumbass characters, I’ve always found him to be at his best when he’s “breaking bad,” as it were, and Harlan DeGroat might be his baddest yet, leap-frogging over the bad cops in Rampart (2011) by a country mile. To not put to fine a point on it, Harrelson is absolutely riveting in the film: from his first scene to his last, it is, literally, impossible to take your eyes off him. While Harlan is bat-shit crazy and unrelentingly scary, Harrelson brings plenty of nuance and shading, as well: the bit where he butts heads with Affleck ends up saying as much about his character as it does about eager-beaver Rodney. Every good revenge film needs a good, despicable villain and Harlan DeGroat is definitely one for the record books: if you’re a fan of Harrelson’s, Out of the Furnace should be required viewing.

While the rest of the cast is quite good (especially Defoe, who seems to be channeling John Waters by way of Steve Buscemi), it was a little disappointing to see Saldana and Whitaker wasted in what amounted to throwaway roles. Whitaker, in particular, doesn’t get to do much more than show up, act mildly concerned and step off-camera: there’s no characterization, making his climatic scene even more ineffective than it might have normally been. The character of Chief Barnes could have been written out of the story and everything would have continued to hum along just fine. Other than the powerful aforementioned scene with Bale, Saldana is similarly wasted, her character seeming to exist only to inject a much-needed female angle into the proceedings: aside from seeming to take place entirely at night, Out of the Furnace also posits a world that seems to consist solely of grouchy men and a few women on the periphery.

Cooper, the writer/director of the Oscar-winning Jeff Bridges vehicle Crazy Heart (2009), brings a similarly sturdy sense of narrative to this film. Kooky coda notwithstanding (and the coda really is a bizarre one, particularly since it appears to unnecessarily throw into question the film’s timeline), Out of the Furnace is a pretty linear and relentless film, if decidedly slow going, at times. While I would have liked a little more grit in the proceedings (the opening scene with Harlan at the drive-in is shot in a washed-out ’70s-style that turns into a more contemporary look for the film “proper”), there’s precious little than I can complain about here. While the film may, ultimately, bear more weight as a particularly grim drama than a revenge film, there’s plenty of both elements to go around. Fans of any of the aforementioned actors (with the possible exception of poor Saldana and Whitaker) would be well-served checking out the film. Anyone who enjoys bravura, all-in portrayals of mad-dog-scary people, however, needs to put this one closer to the top of their list: when Harrelson is good, he’s great. When he’s scary, however, he’s the stuff of nightmares.