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'Out of the Furnace':You won't have a blast

"Out of the Furnace" echoes "The Deer Hunter," but this violent story of war veterans and mill workers is too insistently grim.

Casey Affleck stars as an Iraq war veteran in western Pennsylvania who fights in illegal bare-knuckle matches to make money. (Kerry Hayes photo)
Casey Affleck stars as an Iraq war veteran in western Pennsylvania who fights in illegal bare-knuckle matches to make money. (Kerry Hayes photo)Read more

I HOPE you'll excuse the triple negative, but, if they don't make movies like "The Deer Hunter" anymore, it's not because they're not trying.

"Out of the Furnace" is an ambitious blue-collar epic with similar themes and circumstances - western Pennsylvania mill workers who go to war, a sense that the country they work for and serve doesn't value their lives very much.

There is even a deer hunt, and director Scott Cooper pointedly repeats an image from Michael Cimino's film - a hunter raises his rifle to shoot a buck, has second thoughts.

The hunter here is Russell Baze (Christian Bale), a steel worker in Braddock, Pa., who's worried about his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq war veteran (it's set in 2008) with gambling debts.

Rodney has turned to bare-knuckle brawling for money, and if you think Affleck is the least convincing bare-knuckle brawler in movie history, I'd argue that he could probably take Edward Norton.

And in any event, Rodney's job is to lose - a local hustler (Willem Dafoe) is using him to fix fights in concert with a fearsome rural gangster named DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).

This does not go well, putting protective Russell in conflict with DeGroat, and with the local sheriff (Forest Whitaker). The result: Desperate, discarded men fight and bleed and die, all for a few measly dollars, in the pale shadows of the rusted industrial hulks of mills where their fathers worked in more prosperous times.

You like the movie's instincts, it's relevance and integrity, but it's often emotionally inert in a way "The Deer Hunter" was not.

Perhaps because it's so insistently grim. We remember "Deer Hunter" for its harrowing POW scenes, yes, but also for the happy brotherhood among the mill workers - drinking Bud, shooting pool, singing Frankie Valli, glad to be alive, so you felt the loss of life all the more.

"Furnace" starts with a scowling, downbeat Eddie Vedder tune, and lives always under a gloomy cloud.

Another problem: The movie is geographically incoherent. Pennsylvanians will go bonkers trying to mentally MapQuest this plot. The Bazes live and work in Braddock, near Pittsburgh, and travel to a nearby "Appalachian" town located in what we are told is . . . Bergen County, New Jersey.

Was West Virginia unavailable?

Also, the movie is no more convincing on the subject of deer hunting than was "The Deer Hunter" (De Niro leaves from Johnstown, parks in the Rockies.) Guys pick up their rifles to hunt in the midst of what is obviously summer, with the leaves still green on the trees.

Still, you sympathize with Cooper's goals here, his desire to call attention to American lives and locales ignored by the Hollywood, holiday-glamour machine.

And to their ever-dimming prospects.

Occasionally, a line lands like a punch.

As one fixer says to Rodney:

"You've got to learn to take a fall."