Out of the Furnace (2013)

In their illustrated novel Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco talk about “economic sacrifice zones.” Camden, New Jersey, the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, McDowell County, West Virginia are pockets of poverty and despair so isolated and so cut off from the American mainstream they might as well be somewhere in the Third World. Out of the Furnace, Scott Cooper’s film staring Christian Bale as a Western Pennsylvania steel worker, is a deeply flawed attempt to make a film about this side of the United States.

In spite of some excellent performances by a cast of A-list Hollywood actors, Woody Harrelson, Bale, Sam Shepherd, Willem Defoe, and Casey Affleck, Out of the Furnace is a terrible movie. It’s often laughably anachronistic. It’s dull. It’s violent without having any clear idea about how it feels about the violence it portrays. The excellent Winter’s Bone, which was made for one-tenth the cost, 2 million dollars as opposed to Out of the Furnace’s 20 million dollars, showed us back in 2010 that you could indeed make a successful film about an “economic sacrifice zone.” So what went wrong?

I think Out of the Furnace might have failed precisely because it had an A-list cast and a 20 million dollar budget. Big stars and big budgets restrict a director’s freedom as much as they enable him to make a good film. Here’s what I think happened. While you do of course have every right to make a film about an “economic sacrifice zone,” you don’t have a right to investors, to funding. People won’t put up money for a film they don’t think will make money. Winter’s Bone, which starred Jennifer Lawrence when she was still a relative unknown, slipped through the cracks. It was a low-budget movie with a future mega-star. The Wire is a TV show. But Out of the Furnace, as a relatively big budget, relatively mainstream film had to follow certain conventions.

So how does poverty “make it through the censors,” which, in the United States? It’s rare, of course, for a mainstream film to feature poor, unattractive people. But there are certain formats you can work in if you’re interested in making a film about an economic sacrifice zone. You can make a crime drama. Police procedurals and detective shows are where you see the poor on TV.  You might, of course, argue that for most people people in America, cops are omnipresent. You get stopped and frisked on the way to work. You come home and watch the police respond to the domestic disturbance next door. But you’re not going to show an A-list Hollywood actor getting stopped and frisked or waiting in line for a payday loan at the check cashing store. So you need to dramatize poverty indirectly, circle around it, suggest rather than show outright, leave some room for the central protagonist to become a “hero.”

Out of the Furnace squares the circle by way of a revenge drama. It opens at a drive in. Note above what I said about “anachronistic.” We’re never told where the drive-in is located but we see Woody Harrelson as Harlan DeGroat, who we later learn is one of the Ramapo Valley Indians of Bergen Country, New Jersey, terrorizing his girlfriend. When a man in the next car tries to stop it, DeGroat savagely beats him in the parking-lot. This is not a man, we’re shown, who we really want to run into in a dark alley. Bergen County New Jersey, of course, is by no definition an “economic sacrifice zone,” but the hills above Mahwah, where the Ramapo Mountain Indians live, is an isolated, often misunderstood place. So there you have it. Poverty and isolation is embodied by one irrational, violent criminal. That he’s portrayed by a big star also means he has to be a seriously badass violent, irrational criminal, not just an idiot who shoots his mother for her welfare check or knocks over a convenience store.

The movie then shifts to North Braddock, a decayed industrial city just outside of Pittsburgh, not, strictly speaking, an economic sacrifice zone either, but still run down, a place that has seen better days. We meet Russell Baze, Bale, who works in a local steel mill as a welder. The aesthetics of North Braddock appear to have been lifted whole cloth right out of the Deer Hunter. There is in fact still an operational steel mill in North Braddock, but I doubt it’s a big part of the local economy anymore. I’m not exactly sure what North Braddock looks like these days, but this North Braddock appears to be stuck in a 1970s time warp. Restored muscle cars, dark, grimy working class bars, old men dying next to plastic statutes of the Virgin Mary, there are no desktop computers, no Starbucks, no big box stores or fast food places. A mobile phone will play a key role in the plot, but this is my father’s Western Pennsylvania, not mine. There is some good cinematography in Out of the Furnace. A road trip Russell Baze takes to Mahwah, New Jersey — portrayed by Independence Township Pennsylvania — is simultaneously beautiful and menacing. But, for the most part, Scott Cooper seems to be “sampling” from the Deer Hunter because he’s unsure of how to shoot the current day suburbs of Pittsburgh. Deborah Granik, in Winters Bone, by contrast, not only shows us the authentic Ozark “economic sacrifice zone” of Arkansas and Missouri, she shows so much of it it almost starts to look like a documentary.

We also meet Russell Baze’s younger brother Rodney, an Iraq War veteran who, since he has trouble settling down and getting a job, has gotten mixed up with some local gangsters, the bare-knuckled fight scene, and, ultimately, Harlan DeGroat. Why a local gangster and drug dealer in northern New Jersey is mixed up in a similar scene all the way out in Western Pennsylvania is never quite explained. In spite of Russell’s efforts to save his brother, efforts that include signing over his entire paycheck to pay his debt, Rodney agrees to participate in a bare-knuckled match out in New Jersey, where, in exchange for “taking a dive,” DeGroat agrees to forgive him and John Petty, Defoe, the money they owe. Petty and Rodney drive out to New Jersey. Rodney takes the dive as agreed, but, for some reason never explained, Harlan DeGroat murders them both.

The murder staged in Out of the Furnace, and the apparently lack of motivation, has, in the real world, led to some members of the Ramapo Mountain tribe to bring a law suit against Scott Cooper and the producers of Out of the Furnace. Since DeGroat is a common name among the Ramapo Mountain people and since Harrelson’s character is so irredeemably vicious, they’ve accused the film of being nothing less than a “hate crime.” It is indeed a little baffling as to why Cooper would have an isolated little rural slum in New Jersey play such a large role in a film about Western Pennsylvania but I suspect it has something to do with wanting to address racial tensions in Braddock — which is now 60 percent black — without having to deal with any fallout. Although Cooper casts two fine black actors, Forest Whitaker and Zoe Saldana, in insignificant roles, the racial “other” is played by the white, Anglo Saxon Woody Harrelson as a Ramapo Mountain “Indian.” Cooper jumped out of the frying pan and landed right in the fire.

In any event, while in Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence’s Uncle Teardrop and an associated family of meth cookers embody the poverty, desperation and violence of an “economic sacrifice zone,” in Out of the Furnace, Harrelson does it all by himself. It doesn’t work. While Harrelson certainly knows how to play a violent, depraved criminal, it comes off more like a star turn than anything that speaks to the society of either the Ramapo Mountain People or of Western Pennsylvania. Russell’s revenge, where Bale lures Harrelson back to Braddock on the pretext of collecting a debt, is as implausible as it is dramatically unconvincing. A scary crime lord like DeGroat didn’t have lackeys willing to drive out and collect the money? Nobody’s ever heard of PayPal or money orders? What’s more, it makes no sense that a welder would suddenly transform himself into a badass killing machine. Knowing how to fire a hunting rifle never made anybody Dirty Harry. It would have, in fact, made a lot more sense to have had Rodney, as an Iraq War Vet, avenge Russell, his hard working civilian brother. Surely they teach people how to kill in the army, but, once again, the economics of the film override its dramatic logic. Christian Bale is a bigger star than Casey Affleck, so he had to play the hero.

Indeed, Russell’s transformation into an avenger contrasts poorly with Jennifer Lawrence’s Rhea Dolly. Winter’s Bone is dramatically effective precisely because Rhea has to overcome her terror, precisely because she’s a 17-year-old girl without protection, stuck in an economic sacrifice zone where she and her younger brother and sister are about to lose their house. Winter’s Bone brings us into that economic sacrifice zone because it brings us into the mind of a young woman who understands what it means, but doesn’t fully understand what it means. The film is a learning process. Out of the Furnace, by contrast, is just another macho action flick. It’s not the worst movie ever made, but it’s a criminal waste of talent.

Forget about Out of the Furnace. Watch Winter’s Bone. Read Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Dig your out your old VHS copy of the Deer Hunter, and, if you’re still in the mood, take a drive up to the Ramapo Mountains. I’m 100% sure you won’t get killed.

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