Not exactly a spoiler alert, but there's a place Casey Affleck's character goes in Out of the Furnace - he's an Iraq war veteran returned to Western Pennsylvania and finding it hard to assimilate - that may necessitate some mental readjustment on the part of audiences. Especially audiences who think of New Jersey as a dense grid of traffic circles, shopping malls, and suburban sprawl.
Affleck's Rodney Baze Jr. heads from the Rust Belt gloom of Braddock, Pa., to the Ramapo Mountains in the northeast corner of the Garden State to fight in an illegal, bare-knuckle boxing match being promoted by a crazy-eyed backwoods meth dealer played by Woody Harrelson. With its thick rings of uninviting forest, empty two-lane roads, biker bars, and dilapidated farmhouses, the area looks like it's in the Ozarks, or the Smokies, not a stone's throw from the Tappan Zee.
"I know," says Affleck, on the phone from Miami the other day. "It seemed crazy, right? You tend to think of New Jersey as being something totally other than this. But apparently it's not. And not only is it Jersey, but it's like 30 minutes from New York City! Very weird. . . .
"That was the one thing when I read the script that was like a total surprise to me. What fiction is this?"
Out of the Furnace, it turns out, is powerful fiction, never mind the geographic disconnect. The story of two brothers (Christian Bale is Rodney's even-keeled sibling), the film was directed by Scott Cooper, whose Crazy Heart won its star, Jeff Bridges, a best-actor Oscar. Beyond Affleck, Bale, and Harrelson, Out of the Furnace's cast includes Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard, and Forest Whitaker. The film opened Friday.
"How impressive is this cast?" says Affleck, whose haunting performance radiates pain, isolation, despair. "They've all been in at least one truly great movie, and they've all given at least one great performance. So they already have a history . . . . They bring a level of professionalism that demands you rise to the occasion. . . .
"You know, all ships rise with the tide, as they say, and when you have a huge cast like that, it creates a swell that makes people like me better."
Affleck, the younger brother of some guy named Ben, has had his share of great performances, too: In 2007 alone, he starred as a working-class Boston private-eye in Gone Baby Gone, and received an Academy Award supporting-actor nomination for his work opposite Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Affleck was the coward.
In 2010, he starred in Michael Winterbottom's adaptation of a Jim Thompson noir, The Killer Inside Me, summoning depths of sociopathic rage and sexual loathing. It was a scary piece of work. And this year, Affleck worked opposite Rooney Mara in the lyrical, Terrence Malick-like outlaw-on-the-run love story Ain't Them Bodies Saints.
In Out of the Furnace, Affleck's Rodney can't find peace after returning from the conflict in the Middle East. He's walking wounded, unable to shake memories of combat and carnage.
The one thing he can do, and make money from, is fight - and the intense, close-up boxing scenes are nothing if not visceral. For months before shooting, Affleck trained with John Bray, the 1991 U.S. amateur heavyweight champion.
"I had to do probably more training than the average guy," says Affleck, who is lean and wiry - not exactly an imposing physical figure. "I had to get to a place where I could look like I could throw a punch and maybe hit somebody. . . . And John was way over-qualified for working with an actor, but he helped me get a long way.
"Most people go to a job, and then they go work out and exercise or whatever. For a few months, I got to have just the fight training be my job alone. There are worse ways to make a living!"