What, one might ask, is the point of understated melodrama? It's a bit like decaf coffee or near beer. But understated melodrama, for the most part, is the stuff of Out of the Furnace, the artfully made empty exercise that serves as Scott Cooper's dour follow-up to Crazy Heart.
Cooper directs and co-writes this story set in depressed steel town Braddock, Pennsylvania. There, a good man and a weak man run afoul of a bad man, which qualifies Out of the Furnace as a neo-noir. The good man is Russell Baze (Christian Bale), who works at the steel mill just like his daddy did (somebody cue up the Eddie Vedder! oh wait, somebody already did). The weak man is Russell's brother, Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck), whose Army service as a part of Operation Iraqi Freedom has left him with PTSD and pockets as empty as ever. The bad man is Curtis DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), a psychopathic Appalachian bare-knuckle boxing entrepreneur who—well, let's face it, with a name like Curtis DeGroat, the guy never had a chance.
Anyway, Rodney tries to pay off his debts by taking dives in underground boxing matches, but DeGroat's a man who's not easily satisfied. Russell's used to bailing Rodney out, but this time he'll have to avenge a wrong done to his brother, despite the admonitions of the police chief (Wesley Barnes) who's now sleeping with the love (Zoe Saldana) of Russell's life.
The way male pride gets mixed up in the story's relationships and plot threatens to make Out of the Furnace interesting, but ultimately it's done in by the blunt collection of cliches that is the vigilante-justice plot. Bale gives a familiar performance as the moral man who would like to keep his head down but just can't catch a break; he sets the tone, but not necessarily in a good way. Cooper obliges with lots of shots—at one point, even a montage—of concerned people thinking: it's that kind of movie.
The only problem is that there really isn't much to think about. Cooper leans into the narrative in an appealing way that elides rather than spoon-feeds each development. But there's really no point in trying to be clever with this material, which isn't deceptively simple: it's just simple. Is there any moviegoer left who will be impressed by the intercutting of one character's downfall with a deer hunt (a nod, I suppose to Michael Cimino)?
Subjects like a disappearing American economy and wounded-warrior vets remain worthy of examination, but not as ways of tarting up a thrill-less revenge thriller. The one overstated scene is Affleck's wishful Oscar clip, undone by the worst screenwriting in the picture. So if Out of the Furnace isn't enlightening and isn't moving and is no fun at all, what is it?