WHETHER IT'S ANOTHER symptom of America's cultural divide or just good old-fashioned classism, we're in something of a hillbilly trend. Justified's set to start its fifth season in a fictionalized, drug-addled version of Kentucky's Harlan County; Honey Boo Boo and her brave compatriots continue to serve as McIntyre, Georgia's unasked-for ambassadors; Duck Dynasty's Louisiana beardmen are breaking ratings records and selling ungodly amounts of camouflage merch; and last week, Homefront found Jason Statham bringing his English accent to an unnamed Southern town, where he promptly tussled with Gator Bodine, an immaculately named hillbilly drug lord played by James Franco.
Out of the Furnace is mostly set in Braddock, Pennsylvania, but deals so heavily with hillbillies—they're casually referred to as "inbreds," and they lie around in drug stupors when they aren't hollering at bare-knuckled fights—that it might as well share geography with Deliverance. Russell (Christian Bale) works at Braddock's doomed steel mill; aside from his own problems, of which there are many, he tries to keep his little brother, troubled Iraq vet Rodney (Casey Affleck), out of trouble. So when Rodney heads to Appalachia to try his hand in the brutal backwoods fights rigged by Harlan DeGroat—an immaculately named hillbilly drug lord played by Woody Harrelson—it isn't long until Russell heads into the woods too.
Crazy Heart director Scott Cooper takes his time telling Russell's dour, angry story, and the result is a slow burn that lights up with moments of bloody violence and jarring intensity. Furnace's best, most potent moments come thanks to some A-plus scowling from Bale and a legitimately terrifying, impressively rot-toothed Harrelson. But it's Cooper's attention to their rusted, worn-down, and poor world—and its challenges, from outsourced industry to the trauma of stop-lossed war vets—that makes Furnace something more than the sum of its hicksploitation parts.