If I know anything about Joe and Jane Popcorn, they won’t be storming the megaplexes when Scott Cooper‘s Out of the Furnace opens on 11.27. I didn’t want to see it myself. “Who wants to sink into some violent rustbelt melodrama about grimy, morose working-class beardos and hillbilly druggies?,” I asked myself. “Driving around some Pennsylvania backwater in pickup trucks with Godzilla-sized smokestacks blowing tons of shit into the atmosphere? Later.” But guess what? I saw it last night and it’s a surprisingly accomplished (if gloomy) Terrence Malick-y melodrama — a smooth painterly atmosphere trip with good acting first and a portrait of characters who are stuck in a rust-belt gulag second.

It tells a story that I didn’t particularly want in my head and which I found somewhat perplexing at times, but it’s a nicely calibrated arthouse crime film from 1978.

I’m calling it an admirably low-key visit to Grimville that’s more about visual chops and performances than story. There’s a story, of course, but you can tell right off the top it’s going to be a downhill thing. Better to focus on how well it’s done rather than what it is, right? I don’t want to know about people who live and work in the Pennsylvania hill-country shitkicker backroad regions. Please. I like Paris and Tuscany and the desert and Blurays and beautiful women. I don’t want or need this grime in my life. But even with this prejudice, I felt good about watching Out of the Furnace. Not my kind of story, perhaps, but definitely my kind of filmmaking.

I do want and need beautiful cinematography, and Out of the Furnace definitely has that. Masanobu Takayanagi‘s grayish, exquisitely framed chiaroscuro compositions make this one of the best looking flicks of the year.

The furnace of the title is a metaphor, of course, although there’s a remnant of the Carrie Furnace in Braddock, Pennnsylvania, where the film was partly shot. Blast-furnace operations make for great cinematography, but the one in Braddock closed four years after The Deer Hunter came out in 1978. But Furnace has a scene in which Bale gets a deer in his rifle sights and doesn’t shoot. Robert De Niro did the exact same thing 35 years ago.

Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a Pennslvania steel-mill worker with a very hot girlfriend (Zoe Saldana) — a girlfriend so hot there’s no way she lives in a rust-belt town. (Beauty always migrates to the big cities — you will never find a seriously hot woman in Bumblefuck.) Russell’s younger brother Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck) is an unbalanced and mostly intemperate asshole, and when he gets into debt…aaahh, you don’t want to know. The point is that he gets into trouble with a malignant, lollipop-sucking, drug-dealing scumbag (Woody Harrelson) who runs a fist-fight betting operation, and so he pushes his way into this and gets himself into a fight and yaddah-yaddah. You can imagine what happens. Bad shit happens, the law won’t step in, Bale vs. Harrelson.

Bale’s performance feels just right — spare, toned down, unemphatic, note-perfect. In Contention‘s Kris Tapley says it’s his best performance ever, and I’m in no mood to argue.

Out of the Furnace has 27 producers, executive producers and co-producers. The producers, bless ’em, are Ridley Scott, Tony Scott, Michael Costigan, Leonardo DiCaprio, Ryan Kavanaugh and Jennifer Davisson Killoran. The exec producers are Riza Aziz, Jason Beckman, Robbie Brenner, Ron Burkle, Jason Colbeck, Jason Colodne, Joe Gatta, Joey McFarland, Christian Mercuri, Tucker Tooley, Jeff G. Waxman and Brooklyn Weaver. The co-producers are Ken Halsband, Jamie Marshall and Adam Simpson-Marshall.