Out of the Furnace
Special to The History Place
If you are like me, when a favorite movie ends, you speculate about what happened to the characters after the screen went black and the theater lights came up. What happened to Ben (Dustin Hoffman) and his girl (Katharine Ross), whom we left riding that bus at the finale of The Graduate? Was it really the beginning of a wonderful friendship for Rick and Louie at the end of Casablanca? Or did Hoffman land in jail and Rick on the sharp end of a German bayonet?
And what happened to the folks who sang “God Bless America” and toasted their departed friend in the kitchen of the local bar at the finish of The Deer Hunter? To this question, Out of the Furnace provides the answer. You may recall that The Deer Hunter is about three buddies from a Western Pennsylvania steel town who go off to fight the Vietnam War. At the end of this intense movie, one is dead, one is physically (and perhaps mentally) maimed, and the third, Michael, (Robert De Nero) – though handsome as ever – is scarred inside.
The friends they left behind are altered by the war, as well, although their daily lives have changed very little. The mill is still operating full blast, no doubt producing components of the American war machine. Small-town life seems unchanged and unchangeable, though they are all sharing in the loss of their friend Nick (Christopher Walken).
Fast forward to 2008. Braddock is still a Western Pennsylvania steel town. The mill may be rusty and hanging on by its fingernails against Chinese competition. But for the likes of Russell Baze (Christian Bale) it still offers regular work, as it did for his dad and Uncle Red Baze (Sam Shepard). Not so for Russell’s younger brother Rodney Jr. (Casey Affleck). At the film’s start, Rodney is off for a second tour in Iraq, his generation’s Vietnam. Convinced that the bed-ridden Rodney Sr. was sickened by a lifetime in the mill, he wants no part of it. But, following that second tour, he wants no more of the Army either.
Returning home, his first stop is the penitentiary, where Russell is serving a term for vehicular homicide and DUI. Then it’s into the world of bare knuckle boxing in abandoned warehouses, a world ruled by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) and John Petty (Willem Dafoe). Rodney is deep in debt to Petty, who insists he play the fall guy in these brutal bouts. Rod has a tough time with this concept, which proves to be a problem for one and all.
Echoes of The Deer Hunter ring loudest when Russell and Uncle Red go off on a deer hunt. Russell is, by common acclaim, the better hunter of the two, just like Michael in the earlier film. And just like Michael, he stalks a buck, has him in this scope, and refuses to fire. “I didn’t see a thing,” he reports back to Red, who has brought down a deer of his own.
When Rodney vanishes following a fight in DeGroat’s domain, the action intensifies. The local cop (Forest Whitaker) is in a delicate situation, having nabbed Russell’s woman (Zoe Saldana), while Russ was away paying his debt to society. He now assures Russell that, although Rodney vanished in New Jersey, justice will be done. Doubtful, Russell has other ideas, and Uncle Red is ready to help.
Out of the Furnace is a vignette of the decline of America’s heavy industries and the impact of that decline on the communities that relied on steel, rubber, autos, and the like for their lower middle-class prosperity. The steel mill screams “deferred maintenance.” Russell refers to Chinese competition as if its triumph was inevitable – which it likely is. As the town and its people drift back into a proletarian poverty, the alternatives to steady, well-paid work are drugs and violence.
Signs of the downhill slide were evident in the 1960s to those who had the right eyes and bothered to look. In the early part of the decade, organized labor was already suffering significant losses. Not China, but Germany and Japan, risen Phoenix-like thanks to U.S. aid, were coming on strong – the first wave of the globalization that would, by 2008, have flattened the earth. The Vietnam War was concocted in the waters off Hanoi, during the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
The Iraq War was brewed up in the myth of Saddam’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. We haven’t begun to fathom the damage done to a new generation of American warriors by multiple deployments in the Mid-East and Afghanistan. Meanwhile, 2008 – the year in which Out of the Furnace is set – marked the start of the Great Recession, followed by the Jobless Recovery. Neither the War on Terror nor the Great Recession has finished wreaking damage on our economy and our society as I write this.
Out of the Furnace – whether Director Scott Cooper intended or not – shows us in heartbreaking detail what has become of the sons and daughters of Michael and Linda (Meryl Streep) and the rest of the survivors of the tumultuous Sixties. And it isn’t pretty.
Rated R for strong violence, language and drug content.
Jim Castagnera is the author of 19 books. His latest is Counter Terrorism Issues: Case Studies in the Courtroom