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.
There is also a long drawn out set piece that crosscuts two scenes of Rodney bare-knuckle boxing in the dangerous Jersey Mountains and Russell hunting deer in the forest – a rather obvious exercise in simultaneity editing. Someone could make a good viral video of characters cautiously hunting deer, yet freezing at the last minute, as the animal looks them in the eye…
The more interesting narrative metaphor that is made is the similarity between national economic recession and personal incarceration. Just before Russell goes to prison he watches Teddy Kennedy endorsing Barack Obama for president on TV in a bar. When he gets out five years later, he drives away from the prison building and looks with pain at the abandoned houses and desolate streets. A suggestion that working class America has been imprisoned in their poverty for the past years.
Bale is impressive as the cynical and dejected Russell and there are many moments where he forces in his pride and proves his good nature – an attribute that makes the third act even harsher. Yet this is undoubtedly Affleck’s film. There is an enthralling moment where he screams at his brother for not understanding the brutality that he witnessed in Iraq, which works as an attack on the passive audience as much as the character of his brother.
Adding to the raging hyper-masculinity of Fight Club and Snatch, Out Of The Furnace creates a landscape where you either fight for your life (Affleck) or contain your anger and frustration until boiling point (Bale). The overall film has a proud lawlessness that paints a dangerous picture of beltway America, where gangs of drug dealers and violent rednecks stage brutal boxing matches. In the uneasy time where America is unsure of its economic future, films like Out Of The Furnace and The Place Beyond ThePines are powerfully reinforcing the myth of the downfall of heartland America.