Stars burned by overheated subplot in ‘Furnace’

You can’t fault “Out of the Furnace” for lack of ambition. This thick-sliced melodrama covers economic recession, the effects of the Iraq war, drug crime, the decline of American industry and brotherly devotion. Also, the main character spends part of the movie in jail.

That protagonist is Russell Baze, played by a lean, scraggly-bearded Christian Bale. Despite his jail stint — a curious plot turn that mostly serves to separate him from his onetime girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) — Russell is the good brother, a hard-working guy who labors at the failing steel mill and tries to keep younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck) out of trouble.

That last part is impossible, because Rodney, an Iraq war vet, has problems with impulse control. He owes money to a local sleaze (Willem Dafoe), although both are in debt to a New Jersey drug boss (Woody Harrelson) who runs underground fighting matches.

I always wonder about movie criminals. Harrelson (who does his usual strong work here) plays a guy who bakes his own drugs, loans out money, drives across the Northeast to apply intimidation and rigs bare-knuckle boxing matches for backwoods audiences. This is a business plan?

The Pennsylvania locations are evocatively shot, and you get a good feel for the streets and fields and rusting factories of this once-bustling corner of America. A key influence here seems to be “The Deer Hunter,” with its inarticulate guys, peripheral women, and solidly small-town culture.

Russell even goes deer hunting with his uncle (Sam Shepard), as though to underline the point. And everybody’s acting in the De Niro school, circa 1978, with big gestures and sudden outbursts of intense violence.

In fact, director Scott Cooper (whose “Crazy Heart” won Jeff Bridges an Oscar) seems most interested in this film as an actors’ workshop. Christian Bale keeps his cool and comes off rather well, his sensible older brother’s wisdom a stark contrast to Casey Affleck’s self-destructive younger sib.

Everybody looks greasy and miserable, as though to remind us how serious the movie is. But Harrelson’s psychopath is so oversized and the crime subplot so dominant that it steers us away from what might have been a powerful look at life in the margins.

“Out of the Furnace” (2 stars)

An ambitious melodrama that gets tripped up by its subplot about crime in the backwoods. Christian Bale and Casey Affleck are brothers in a small, rusting Pennsylvania steel town, with Woody Harrelson as a psychopathic crime boss who threatens their existence.

Rated: R for violence, language.

Showing: Alderwood 7, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marsyville, Stanwood, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Sundance, Woodinville, Cascade Mall.

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