‘Out of the Furnace’ illuminates gritty effects of economic struggle

Christian Bale stars in Scott Cooper’s new film, ‘Out of the Furnace,’ which deftly documents the effects of economic hardship on a small Pennsylvania town and its troubled residents.

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The rolling Appalachian hills of Pennsylvania are brimming with the violent, brutal secrets of a darker thread of life running beneath the surface. Beneath a black sky, a film plays within a film while a man with a pearl earring forces a hot dog down the throat of a woman in the warmth of their car at a drive-in movie theater. This opening scene reveals only as much as it needs to draw the audience into a harsh underground world.

Through well-crafted scenes that convey just as much as they conceal, director Scott Cooper leads a cast of talented figures into plots far thicker than the woods that engulf them in “Out of the Furnace,” set to hit theaters Dec. 4.

The film, co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, brings together a cast worth name-dropping. Christian Bale stars as the honest and likeable yet ruggedly tough protagonist Russell, who pays heavily for a moment of indiscretion while driving on a country road. Zoe Saldana plays his love interest, Lena, and when circumstances force Russell to leave their small, industrial town of Braddock, Penn., and his job at the mill, their relationship is put on hold.

Casey Affleck gives a stellar performance as Russell’s brother, Rodney, a former soldier who struggles to piece together a life for himself after returning from service in Iraq. Rodney has a scarred mind to heal and a debt to pay to John (Willem Dafoe), who in turn owes a fair sum to a ruthless meth dealer (Woody Harrelson). In order to settle both debts, Rodney eagerly steps into a dirt ring to fight with bare knuckles against opponents who belong to a mysterious community.

The film’s title, “Out of the Furnace,” serves as an allusion to Thomas Bell’s 1941 novel, “Out of this Furnace.” Like its contemporary cinematic successor, Bell’s novel, set in 1881, focuses on the effects the Braddock steel mill has had on the lives of its workers.

Whiskey and blood flow throughout the film as the men struggle against each other. Only Lena seems safe, her mind untouched by the violence that boils beneath the surface of a seemingly sleepy society. The story, set directly before President Obama’s election in 2008, portrays a town in which the economic crisis has caused men to turn restless. Many have moved away from the good labor that once sustained Russell and his forefathers, because now, as Bale’s character explains, it’s “cheaper to get the steel from China.”

Much has changed in Braddock since its steel mill was constructed in the 1870s. The film addresses the changing face of American industry as the older means of raw materials production that once supported its colonies become outdated, jeopardizing the economic security and health of American employees.

Although Russell, like his ancestors, accepts his toil as a part of life, Rodney sees working at the mill as toxic. Rodney’s return to a struggling country makes him realize he still has obstacles to tackle back home. In a moment of sheer aggravation and despair, his face sweating and pale with psychological pain, he exclaims, “I gave my life for this country, and what’s it done for me?”

The film’s pointed social commentary and high realism keep the subsequent bullet-studded drama and scenes of beaten purple flesh and bloody fists grounded. The rich, well-crafted cinematography presents expository information without needing a single annotation or subtitle. The facts within the fiction establish a solid foundation upon which a gritty story of interlocking lives is built.

As the story of the two brothers progresses, it becomes clear that both men possess a great deal of restraint in an unrestrained world. The film depicts reluctant transitions of all kinds and an unstable nation that lets its men fall. In such a world, all are unsatisfied, and we are left questioning the old regimes in favor of a raw but effective form of simple, savage justice.

Contact Kate Irwin at [email protected].