In Out of this Furnace, Thomas Bell’s classic novel of immigrant life in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a steelworker named Dobie ruminates on his life as a working class immigrant in Pennsylvania’s steel belt: “I’m almost as much a product of that mill down there as any rail or ingot they ever turned out…. If I’m anything at all I’m an American, only I’m not the kind you read about in history books…”
Over seventy years later comes the film Out of the Furnace, about another group of working class characters in Braddock that you won’t read or hear much about in America. Set during the presidential election of 2008, the passage of time clearly has not treated this embattled borough of Pittsburgh well (Braddock has lost 90 percent of its population). In this story of an America left behind, Christian Bale plays the central character, Russell, who carries himself like a man who’s seen his share of trouble, but who now tries to walk the straight and narrow. Russell works at the cavernous local steel mill, which dominates Braddock’s broken streets. The empty skeleton of the Carrie Furnace, the abandoned mill near Braddock, and the borough’s battered bones are their own characters in the film—ones that seem to make unhappy endings all but inevitable.
Russell’s haunted brother Rodney (played by a whipcord and weathered Casey Affleck) is back from a fourth tour in Iraq and at the end of his rope. In debt to a local gambler (played by the ever-reliable Willem Dafoe) he gets himself mixed up in the tawdry and dangerous world of underground bare-knuckle boxing. Rodney’s unfortunate decision to pursue this low road leads him into the clutches of one of the most feral and toxic villains in recent film history. Harlan DeGroat (an unforgettable Woody Harrelson) is a country crime boss who runs the “professional” underground fight scene in New Jersey. He also dabbles in drug dealing and random beatings.
While Rodney heads down the path of self-destruction, Russell is involved in a seemingly fragile relationship with Lena (Zoe Saldana.) Both men hit major roadblocks and tragedy ensues. And have no doubts, this is a dark and tragic film. There is a bleak beauty in film’s desaturated frames. The claustrophobic geography of Braddock’s tight-knit houses and the omnipresent Edgar Thompson Works do much to draw us into the story. And this is a story of broken lives, of working class desperation, and especially of loss.
The film sports an A list class delivering A list performances. The quiet desperation of Bale’s performance, the exploding rage of Affleck’s, and Harrelson’s stunning turn as a redneck crime lord, are all unforgettable. The story occasionally drifts into pathos, and there are some very un-subtle visual references to the Deer Hunter. However, Out of the Furnace is a tightly wound paean to the death of the working class dream.
If you know Braddock, you can’t help but appreciate how well director Scott Cooper utilizes the town’s atmosphere and rusting beauty. In particular the scenes of Braddock shot through car windows and from the point of view of characters driving or walking convey a beautiful if somber atmosphere. The scenes filmed in Independence Township (Bergen County, New Jersey in the film) are extremely dark, seemingly in keeping with their association with Harrelson’s sadistic DeGroat.
While some parts of the film are indeed formulaic, the intense nature of the performances—especially at key moments—stays with you. In one particularly memorable scene, Russell tells his brother,” Come work at the mill (which will soon be closing.) There’s nothing wrong with working for a living.” His brother responds with a dejected roar: “Working for a living? I gave my life for this country and what’s it done for me?”
There is no answer to the question. As there is no answer to where working class America goes in this post-2008 world.