Small-town America has been looking pretty rough in the movies lately, from Alexander Payne's bedraggled "Nebraska" to the dreary upstate New York of Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond the Pines." Grimmer still is Braddock, Pa., the backdrop for Scott Cooper's "Out of the Furnace." It's a collapsing steel-mill town whose local economy seems driven mostly by off-track betting parlors, grimy bars and, inevitably, a prison.

There's another hellhole, however, where even the meanest men in Braddock fear to tread: New Jersey.

In "Out of the Furnace," a gaunt and gristly Christian Bale plays Russell Baze, a mill worker with prison in his past. His younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck), has begun bare-knuckle boxing as a way to pay the bills and, perhaps, obliterate his memories of four tours in Iraq. Unfortunately, Rodney books a fight in the Ramapo Mountains with some "inbred mountain folk" led by the psychotic Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). When Rodney doesn't return, Russell sets out to find him.

Though "Out of the Furnace" takes place in the aftermath of America's recent financial disasters, its story feels timeless, a Rust Belt noir about loyalty and vengeance. This is female-free territory (Zoe Saldana, as Russell's ex-girlfriend, exists mostly to signify heterosexuality), but the taciturn machismo is punctuated by spasms of raw emotion. Russell, Rodney and Harlan share a deep, instinctive understanding: No matter where they're from, they live in the same hard-luck world.

Terrific performances from the three lead actors -- all perfectly cast and playing to their strengths -- help compensate for the slow pace and somewhat rudimentary plot. (Director and co-writer Cooper is switching gears slightly from 2009's bittersweet drama "Crazy Heart.") Bale is particularly compelling: After the movie's brutal finale plays out and all guns are lowered, the look on his face is genuinely spine-tingling. It's the kind of moment that makes "Out of the Furnace" feel almost profound, even if the moral of its story essentially boils down to this: Never go to New Jersey.

PLOT In a depressed steel mill town, two brothers are pulled into a criminal underworld.

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RATING R (violence, language)

CAST Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Woody Harrelson


BOTTOM LINE A somewhat formulaic Rust Belt noir, but Bale delivers a visceral, go-for-broke performance as a man who puts family above the law.



Halfway through "Out of the Furnace," Casey Affleck, as Rodney, goes to visit his older brother, played by Christian Bale, who is in prison for vehicular manslaughter. Rodney has just returned from his fourth tour of duty in Iraq; the two men haven't seen each other in years. When asked about how things went overseas, Rodney just stares at his brother, his eyes suddenly veiled and dark and haunted.

The scene is subtle and deceptively simple, and Affleck's performance in that small throwaway moment is remarkable, using stillness and silence and a blank expression to convey his character's great inner pain.

To capture his character's great inner pain, Affleck talked to many veterans who shared their stories and insights. "When you spend several years living in an incredibly stressful environment, you go through intense trauma and it changes your brain chemistry," he says. "You're essentially a different person. You have all these memories and all these anxieties. You can be at the grocery story or working at a restaurant and you're trying to behave in the same way people who haven't been in combat do, and it's super hard. You can't just erase some of the terrible things you see during war. Those were the things I thought about during that scene."

-- Miami Herald