Russell (Christian Bale) is a steel worker who lives in the Rust Belt with his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an angry young soldier who keeps getting ‘stop lossed’ back into the Iraq war. Rodney has slipped into perpetual gambling in between his tours, and has resorted to borrowing money from John Petty (Willem Defoe), an underground boxing promoter who uses him in his fights.
One night, Russell visits John to offer him some money for Rodney’s debt, and on the way home has a car accident and ends up in jail. When he is eventually released, Rodney is in deeper than ever and goes missing whilst trying to earn money in a more dangerous, yet profitable bare-knuckle fighting circuit with the psychotic Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). This leads Russell to the Northeast to try and find his troubled brother…
The film is essentially a collection of metaphors that combine to create a damning critique of a bleak 21st century America.
Russell spends his time at the steel mill where he proudly works, a location that has many symbolic functions. The rusted, functional architecture is a visual representation of the traditional American heartland that he feels keeps the country together; whilst shots of rusted steel, burning furnaces and billowing smoke towers reinforce the underlying tension and violence of the story.