Just when you think you’ve seen every variation on the all-American hero, along ambles Christian Bale as Russell Baze, a steel worker from hardscrabble rural Pennsylvania. In the first half of Out of the Furnace, he inadvertently causes the death of a boy in an alcohol-induced car wreck, serves a prison sentence, and learns that the love of his life is pregnant by someone else. (Teaser: it gets worse.) Yet writer-director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) steers clear of mawkish feelings of pity with his forceful second feature. Instead we feel admiration, and even a dash of inspiration, because in spite of it all, Russell somehow keeps plugging ahead.

Christian Bale Out of the Furnace

What fuels him is a distinct strain of love among men with generations of honor and loyalty infused in their DNA, along with gruff voices. One of Cooper’s strengths as a director and writer is a nuanced feel for male behavior, and with such a strong and varied cast of actors at his disposal, the film almost comes across as a study in tough guys together. The deepest bond of all is between Russell and his younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an unemployed Iraq war vet who is more of a thrill-seeker than his brother.  Rather than take a dull job at the steel plant, he loses money on televised horse races and shirtless fights organized by manic John Petty (Willem Dafoe). His recklessness draws fraternal feelings of anger and worry from Russell, though at the end of the day the two boys can be found sharing a drink together (“liquid dinner of champions,” Rodney calls it).

Each of these men secretly has the heart of a docile beast, but once Rodney gets in the ring, masculine fury rears its vengeful head, and his plans to “take the fall” to earn back some money invariably fail. His debts grow so dire that John makes a risky fight deal with the practically satanic Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), who in his free time can be found smoking cigarettes with a blow torch while brewing meth. When John and Rodney mess with the wrong guy, Forest Whitaker pulls onto the scene as Chief Wesley Barnes. Well-intentioned but reluctant to die for honor (since he’s married), Barnes does his best to help before Russell takes matters into his own callused hands.

Woody Harrelson Out of the Furnace

So life in Braddock, Pennsylvania is not all roses: looking at the production design by Thérèse DePrez (Black Swan), it is more dried-out trees and crumbling wooden houses. The backwoods beauty of Out of the Furnace runs deep. In one memorable sequence, DeGroat’s unjustified beating of Rodney is cross-cut with shots of Russell and his father (Sam Shepard) stripping open a slaughtered moose; and even scenes in abandoned homes where meth users lurk have an unsettling exoticism compared to the lonely blue-collar gloom in which Russell toils. The perils are vivid and real—a side of the country which many Americans (or at least the city-dwellers) relegate to the imagination, or avoid thinking about altogether.

Gender norms aside, Out of the Furnace seems like the quintessential guy film, starring almost exclusively men, and not suited to fidgety folk who cover their ears at the crack of a rifle. Its story can also feel a bit predictable, for all its dramatic upheaval. But the varied performances yield much kindling for warming the heart, especially the scenes between the two brothers. The love they share is understated, never cloying, but fiercely involved—the kind of brotherly love story perhaps only the screen can capture.