I did not see Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace during its initial run some months ago, in part because I thought little of Cooper’s Crazy Heart (2009), and anticipated, incorrectly, that the film would adapt Thomas Bell’s important (although not very distinctive) novel Out of This Furnace, about the rise of the steel industry and its oppression of workers. Cooper’s film is not unrelated to the concerns of Bell’s novel, and its vision of a deindustrialized US may be among the more focused in the current cinema. At this moment, I feel it to be a minor work, yet of some distinction.
Predictably, the film died at the box office, the fate of any film deemed too downbeat or demanding. Among its stronger assets is its obvious, important relationship to The Deer Hunter (1978). What strikes me most is that Cooper is not a movie brat (Tarantino, regrettably, always pops into mind) who likes to allude smugly to other films to show how adroit he is in stealing ideas, primarily as he goes about demolishing any virtue in cited films, and even his own work. Journalistic reviewers tend to enjoy the movie-brat sensibility – when not demonstrating their own slovenliness.
Reviewers noted the connection of Cooper’s film to The Deer Hunter, and always with the unargued assumption that Cimino’s film is superior, a holy artifact of 1970s cinema that needs no revisiting. I don’t wish to go into all the deficiencies of The Deer Hunter here (Andrew Britton and Robin Wood wrote what may be definitive “pro and con” essays on the film, Wood generally supportive, Britton dismissive) beyond saying that I still find Cimino’s meandering film misconceived at almost all levels, and like nearly all films about the assault on Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia, less than instructive on the realities of the period, its horrible cost in human life, and the unbelievable arrogance of US policy. (Parenthetically, I am one of those rare birds who thinks Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate  to be superior in every sense to The Deer Hunter – for many, Heaven’s Gate of course should stay in the trash can where it has been thrown, while The Deer Hunter should continue to enjoy venerated screenings – even though some felt they needed to rethink that film after the “disaster” of Heaven’s Gate).
A comparison of Cimino and Cooper presents problems but is worthwhile. The Deer Hunter is obviously a big-budget film with “epic” pretensions; Out of the Furnace is far more modest in budget (the money spent, I think, on its cast of prestige actors) and goals. Such qualifications do not come to mind to journalistic reviewers, who went their merry way with Out of the Furnace; as per custom – they even tend to make their cases (if this is the word) by citing material not even in the film.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone says “The film opens in 2008, with Obama calling for change and no one buying it in Braddock, Pennsylvania…” The opening scene in the film has nothing to do with Obama, nor does Obama appear anywhere in the film, nor do we get to hear his ideas. There is a scene early in the film at John Petty’s (Willem Dafoe) tavern, where bartender Dan (Tom Bower) watches a TV broadcast of the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Senator Ted Kennedy is making a speech supporting Obama’s nomination for the presidency, telling the public about its best ideals, and other platitudes. Dan turns toward his bar patrons, including Russell Baze (Christian Bale), saying “It looks like we’re gonna lose another Kennedy, God bless him.” At the time, Ted Kennedy was dying of brain cancer. Dan isn’t gloating; on the contrary, he seems remorseful. We might assume that the film unfolds in a Democratic stronghold (were that the entire working class was of Dan’s sentiment).
I make this point in response to Travers not just to correct an atrocious reviewer. On the contrary, the characters of the film (at least the nice ones) seem to be “buying” in the sense that the film has a liberal populism as its controlling ideology. Before we enter Petty’s bar, we see the streets of Braddock at night; they are desolate and mostly empty, some stores run-down and shut, representative of any deindustrialized town. We hear a Kennedy voice non-diegetically on the soundtrack. Which Kennedy is it? – the Kennedy brothers had distinctive voices that were also quite similar (although Robert’s was a bit nasal). There is a strong suggestion of America haunted by a lost, progressive past (there is no point in going into the real politics of the Kennedys, who today indeed seem to be very attractive figures, of a sort totally missing from a degraded state power). Back in the bar, Dan asks Russell about the activities of younger brother Rodney (Casey Affleck). Russell says he is being “stop-lossed” and forced to go back to Iraq for yet another tour of duty, to which Dan responds with disgust, saying that “they’re gonna run ‘em into the ground.” If Out of the Furnace isn’t buying, it isn’t buying the long-standing ideology of America.
Cooper’s film seriously engages with The Deer Hunter, attempting to take on its assumptions in a manner typical of the dialogue that goes on within traditional art, a point lost on reviewers who adumbrate the raw elements that the two films share. As I see it, Cooper is less interested in taking on The Deer Hunter than dealing with ideas prominent in American art, dating to Fenimore Cooper, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and twentieth-century works about American life, including Sinclair Lewis and Sherwood Anderson. It is not especially relevant if Cooper has read these authors. It is sufficient to see his ambitions as manifest in this film. His is an Iraq-era film, while The Deer Hunter speaks to Vietnam, but Cooper’s work is more authentic, conveying the sense that “the more things change…”
For the purposes of elucidating Out of the Furnace, I’ll use some of the themes, iconography and mise-en-scène shared by Cimino and Cooper and cited by reviewers. My purpose is to examine briefly Out of the Furnace for its qualities as moral fiction, which for me means the extent to which it is intelligently critical of the standing social order, with assumptions derived from late patriarchal capitalism. Some presume, I think, that The Deer Hunter has such concerns, since the film is supposed (no?) to be critical of the Vietnam incursion, although a case can be made (I am implying one here) that the film wants it both ways, pleasing conservative and liberal (but not radical) sectors of the audience – this is evident in the final “God Bless America” finale, which some read as halting and tentative, others as merely celebratory – I am with the latter, noting the freeze-frame (the most tired device of 1970s visual media) beer-hoisting.
In The Deer Hunter, Mike (Robert De Niro) is the charismatic male, looking out for his younger charges. He is a combination Zen master (of sorts) and latter-day frontiersman, utterly self-possessed, often berating the slightly younger men for their irresponsible ways. He takes part in two deer hunts, both of which show him on a misty mountain, a male choir on the soundtrack in a moment that can only be described as a (wholly unmerited) liturgy for the male hero. In the first hunt, he kills a deer with his legendary “one shot.” In the second hunt, he lets the deer go, saying “Okay,” as if he has subdued nature anyway, and lets it temporarily have its way.
In Out of the Furnace’s one deer hunt, Russell is accompanied by Uncle Red (Sam Shepard). The two go off in different directions. Russell encounters a deer, who stares directly at him/us. The animal’s beauty and innocence are emphasized as Russell decides not to shoot it – there is no “Okay” or similar declaration. There is a sense that Russell is a peer of the animal, perhaps less – the two face each other on flat earth, without the visual indulgence of placing the hero and the deer on opposing cliffs (The Deer Hunter), with the man inevitably superior.
Uncle Red has killed a deer, which the two men take home, skin, and start to butcher – this hunt is one element suggesting not just the sense of responsibility of the two men (both men have a gentle aspect – Uncle Red grows orchids), but the population’s reduction to hunter-gatherer status.
Russell Baze is a compelling man, but one who radiates charisma, if at all, only because we are conscious of the star-actor playing him – this is an achievement, not a misjudgment by Cooper and Christian Bale. From first glance, Russell seems downtrodden and somewhat forlorn. Russell is worried about his younger brother Rodney, a gambling addict with other psychological problems. One could say that Russell and Mike (in The Deer Hunter) share the issue of eventual ineffectuality, although with the stoic Mike there is the suggestion that he might save Nick (Christopher Walken), but Rodney seems a lost cause, as is the world around him. More important, his older, presumably wiser brother Russell is haggard, his face drawn and often dirty from working in the steel mill – there is a sense, achieved through makeup and costuming, that he is a bit emaciated. He is also a rebuke of the strong, silent male. On several occasions (his visit with Lena, his visit to the road where he accidentally killed a child) he weeps openly. His emotional nature motivates much of the narrative; the relationship of his emotions to the end is crucial. Certainly his feelings are central to what happens to DeGroat, far more so than any sense of moral outrage. He is an alcoholic. He drives home drunk, killing a child in a car crash, causing his imprisonment for vehicular homicide. There is the implication of the hero out of control, but merely unable to handle his life; he doesn’t launch into a virile rampage typical of Hollywood cinema (the topic is relevant, however, to the film’s conclusion). Petty’s bar takes the image of alcohol in a specific direction. Rather than being the site of much macho tomfoolery, as in The Deer Hunter (and countless westerns), the bar of Out of the Furnace is decidedly downbeat, a dark place of temporary, dubious solace for woebegone people, and finally a site of awful criminality and death.
The Deer Hunter of course celebrates community ritual in its extended wedding scene, which includes the overdrawn tomfoolery of the men in the moments preceding and following the wedding per se. Some prefer to term the wedding scene “Fordian,” a useless concept for purposes of elucidating the moment, which has none of Ford’s angst and basic romanticism (of course some argue that the scene counters Ford). Out of the Furnace shows a community in tatters, the streets of Braddock, Pennsylvania, in contrast to Clairton, mostly empty and foreboding, the mood dolorous (achieved by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, and composer Dickon Hinchcliffe). The “community ritual” of the film, aside from the depressing (and finally deadly) activity in Petty’s grim-looking bar, is the caregiving by the Baze men (notably, no women are present) of the dying father, Rodney Sr. (Bingo O’Malley). The most important rituals, the most instructive of the film, are the organized fistfights in Braddock and in the Ramapo Mountains, about which more presently.
The Drive-In Movie Theater
Cooper’s purchase on the contemporary (dead) community is highlighted in the film’s first scene at a drive-in movie. The monstrous Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) tortures his girlfriend, kicks her out of the car, causing a small dust-up. The scene dissolves to black. The main issue here is the drive-in itself as signifier of lost community. Drive-ins, where they can be found at all, are sustained by gentrified regions with a desire for “retro” culture, or rural situations where the drive-in may still be a convenience. The drive-in of Out of the Furnace evokes an earlier American society that, when resurrected in the nightmare set-piece here, makes one reflect on the nation’s “lost innocence,” a cherished consolation of the US.
The role of women in Out of the Furnace is perhaps as minor as in The Deer Hunter, although Cooper’s film has a small cast and budget. The women of Cimino’s film are marginal; the Ukrainian female population hardly more than local color. It is difficult to know what Linda is supposed to embody, aside from support and nurturance for the male. Lena (Zoe Saldana) in Out of the Furnace, on the other hand, is a schoolteacher – we see her instructing and playing with young grammar school children when she is visited by Russell just before their poignant moment on the bridge. Her role in the film is small, but if anyone embodies hope for the future, it is she.
The Steel Mill
The mill in Clairton, PA of The Deer Hunter is introduced as an inferno, presaging the horrors of Vietnam, but also signifying the vitality of the town, with its various businesses thriving even as we see the relative poverty of the working class. There are no complaints about wages in the narrative, and the run-down homes are sites of celebration.
The mill in Braddock is amazing for the very fact that it exists at all; the outsourcing of industry has long taken away such factories, although the Braddock mill, the first installed by robber baron Andrew Carnegie, is still active (at least as of two years ago) in part for historical reasons. But the fact of its existence is problematical; the smoke from its chimneys is shown often in the film, polluting the landscape, and there is a real prospect that it may close. When Russell meets with Lena after his prison term, the topic comes up, Lena telling Russell of a prospective shut-down. Russell responds that steel from China is cheaper. This moment is crucial. It is filled with the tears of Russell and Lena, who break down while discussing, along with the fate of the mill, Lena’s pregnancy by Wesley (Forest Whitaker). Disappointment at personal and social levels are interwoven throughout the film.
But rather than being seen as a benign source of income (the men in The Deer Hunter seem to return home from the Clairton mill not especially taxed by the work), the Braddock mill is a signifier of blight – its fate will soon be the same as the abandoned, rusting factory that is the site of Petty’s organized fist-fights. The Clairton mill sits in the background, its presence almost totally metaphorical, while the Braddock mill is firmly rooted in the material circumstances of the town. Rodney dreads the idea of working in the Braddock mill, to which Russell takes insult, reminding his younger brother that he and their father worked there. Rodney responds that the mill “killed our dad.” Worse, Rodney associates the mill with the nation itself. He bristles at Russell’s snide remark that he should “try working for a living.” Rodney raises his shirt to reveal a deep scar, no doubt an Iraq battle wound: “Is this working for a living, motherfucker?” Enraged, Rodney screams “I gave my life for this fuckin’ country…what’s it done for me!” The line seems a rebuke to JFK’s famous inaugural line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” (a call to arms that might be the essence of postwar state policy). The argument between the two brothers propels all that follows, making the final fistfight with DeGroat’s man less a matter of financial survival than suicide.
There are two intercut scenes – one in The Deer Hunter, the other in Out of the Furnace – that are instructive on the matter of the steel mill as symbol of a deindustrialized nation. In Cimino’s film, Mike, just returned from Vietnam, walks down the main thoroughfare of Clairton with Linda (Meryl Streep). The shops they pass all seem functioning, all privately-owned businesses that were in fact on their way out by the 1970s. They stop in the Eagle Supermarket, where Mike is embraced by virtually all the personnel – small entrepreneurial capitalism is not only vital but a symbol of community good will, and here provides the film with another Fordian moment.
The comparable scene in Out of the Furnace occurs when Russell is released from prison. He is picked up by Rodney; the two men head for home, passing through the streets of Braddock, with its boarded-up homes, some very tumble-down, graffiti-covered, and degraded. The film is much more sensitive to the economic reality of its own moment than The Deer Hunter is of the post-Bretton Woods 1970s.
The Russian Orthodox Church looms large in The Deer Hunter, for reasons that escape me. One complaint about this film is that none of its lead characters seem remotely connected to Ukrainian/Russian Orthodox culture or its religious customs, aside from the extended wedding sequence. One can say the church is a huge presence in most of the Clairton scenes, perhaps an ignored one, but this is by no means explicit – we are asked to believe that its presence is both crucial and irrelevant. It appears to be in the film in aid of more Fordian conceits, but maneuvered in ways that would bewilder Ford. Indeed, the role of religion, like the film itself, seems obfuscatory. Yet the religious idea is used to “sanctify” events, to make them appear larger than they are (the chorale as Mike hunts deer).
In Cooper’s film, we see two scenes involving organized religion. The first is in the prison chapel where Russell glumly attends a sparsely-populated service. The second is in the Catholic Church of Braddock, where Russell sits, the church essentially empty. He searches for a peace of mind that isn’t available. Clearly, the film portrays the church as small succor in the face of incredibly grim economic realities. The film does not feel compelled to look to Ford and the cinematic past to somehow refill the decayed social sphere.
The Russian roulette scenes are central to The Deer Hunter’s sense of the young men being determined by the caprice of an awful “fate,” associating this fate with the Oriental Other’s cruelty, his lack of belief in a benign Christian God, notions that caused controversy at the film’s release since there is little or no evidence that Russian roulette figured in the Vietnam incursion on anything like the scale imputed to it in this film. Nick, of course, dies from the game. His self-destruction is tied to an obscure death wish, obscure because undermotivated – his addiction isn’t rooted in anything we saw in Clairton.
Gambling (or “gaming”, in polite bourgeois parlance of the present) is a basic source of income for Rodney and many people of Braddock, not a mere psychological aberration that strains toward metaphor as in The Deer Hunter. The metaphor of Out of the Furnace arrives gracefully, suggesting the precarious life of a savage, jobless America. We first see Rodney in a grimy off-track betting parlor. He watches horse races on little television sets as Russell comes in to pull him aside. Rodney defies the wise older brother (compare with The Deer Hunter), not wanting the degradation of the mill that killed their father. But there are no healthy options; as is so often the case in late capitalist society, survival, outside of the low-wage “service economy,” means involvement with vice. In Rodney’s case and that of the men of Braddock, it means working for John Petty, the oily entrepreneur who runs betting-based fistfights, a town “fight club” that is about economic survival rather than proving machismo. Petty has been described by reviewers as a “gangster.” The word has not much application, since Petty conveys a sense of desperation and need as profound as Rodney’s. He seems authentic when he tells Rodney “I’m trying to protect you” when Rodney insists on fights with DeGroat’s high-paying clan in the Ramapo Mountains, Petty knowing of the clan’s viciousness.
There is a crucial scene evoking the meaning of gambling in Out of the Furnace. Petty sets up a fight for Rodney in the abandoned factory. The scene cuts to Russell scraping, puttying, and painting a window frame. The film intercuts this regularly with the mud-covered Rodney and his bloodied opponent battling it out in the factory, the crowd screaming, egging them on. The fight is the key exemplar of the human being reduced to primitivism – at the same time, humanity tries to hang onto its collapsing dwelling, refusing to submit to regression.
The fistfights are harbingers of death, for the individual and the collective. The explicitness of the notion is seen in a tattoo on Rodney’s back, a “soldier’s gravestone” consisting of a rifle bayoneted upside-down into the ground, a military helmet resting on its butt. The killing fields of Iraq are synonymous with those of Braddock and Ramapo, obviously so in Rodney’s mind.
Reviewers who suggest that Cooper is something like a plagiarist, submitting a lackluster version of The Deer Hunter, might have helped their brief by noting that another genre, the 1970s horror film, is also marshaled here. DeGroat and his minions hearken to the “evil clans” of the horror film, specifically The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), very political films about the horrid transformation of the American setting by economics as they also reference American myth, history, and folklore.
A key issue here is the opposition of the “normal” family to the barbaric clan, and the eventual dissolution of the normality represented by the bourgeois family. The transformation overturns the clear demarcation between the opposing families, and the uselessness of the civilizing force represented by the good family (the Earps versus the Clantons in My Darling Clementine  represent an insistence on the demarcation). The idea has some limited relevance here. DeGroat is an obvious savage, and is appropriately coded – he is said to be among the “inbreds” of the Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey, a killer pack that reproduces itself through incest. I find the notion both evocative and amusing, since New Jersey is long known as one of the most hyper-polluted, hyper-corrupt states of the nation, but hardly so socially and economically backward as to produce inbred tribes on the order of Deliverance. But the idea seems implausible if we associate backwardness only with the Deep South or hidden regions of the Appalachians, not an East Coast state such as New Jersey. The film’s basic concern is to emphasize the general degradation of American life: the working class has turned into the working poor, the lower class into primitives – a problem here is the hoary association of the very poor with crime and barbarism, the notion driven home here by the connection of the monstrous clan – and only the clan – with the production and sale of drugs.
But the relationship of the “normal” people of Braddock to the savage clan of Ramapo differs greatly from the association of the civilized family with the evil clan in 1970s horror. In the horror film, the normal family is reflected in the monsters, the normals adopting at least for the moment, the characteristics of the evil clan. DeGroat and his underlings may be seen simply as an extension of Russell’s economic situation and that of the people of Braddock. The clan’s extreme poverty might be seen as what is waiting for Braddock, the awful qualities of Ramapo already evidenced in Braddock. DeGroat’s house is a hardly habitable ruin, its interior walls made of filthy sheets. Civilization still lingers in Braddock; houses (the ones not yet shut down) are shabby yet reasonably kept-up (the window-painting scene with Russell is instructive). Yet there is too much about Russell’s world that anticipates DeGroat’s. The fight scenes look very similar, the men covered in grime, the locations abandoned mills, each side fighting for money for basic survival (DeGroat tells Rodney, “We all need money”).
And as monstrous as DeGroat is, his dying moments suggest that he retains some trace of humanity, while Russell is in danger of losing his. As he dies, he tells Russell that Rodney was a “tough kid.” He also notes to Russell the birds chirping in the distance.
The film has been cited for its use of another 1970s genre, the vigilante film. Matt Zoller Seitz said, incredibly, that the film might have been a “Walking Tall in steel country.” We can say that Russell’s pursuit of DeGroat for the murder of Rodney is a vigilante act, although, at last, he is actually assisted by Wesley, the chief of police. The aura of the film, the sense of Braddock’s utter isolation and despair, motivates Russell as much as his contempt (actually, he has none worthy of studying) for “the system.” There is none of the vigilante film’s ratcheting up of tension, the playing on audience hatred of the villain, always tied to ideology or race (Scorpio’s association with the hippie movement in Dirty Harry; the urban racial Other [even when white] in the Death Wish cycle). Russell’s pursuit of DeGroat in the final reel works quite differently. After the initial contact and Dan’s murder, there seems no question that Russell will kill DeGroat. The pursuit of DeGroat through an abandoned factory (punctuating the film’s use of this as mise-en-scène, making clear the ultimate concern) has a strong element of pathos. DeGroat becomes the deer that Russell didn’t kill; he is hardly more than a wounded animal as he struggles on to escape Russell, who in this moment embodies the “Fenimore Cooper moment,” showing that he is skilled indeed, yet the pervasive gloom gives the scene no sense of a bravura set-piece.
Wesley tries to stop Russell’s execution of DeGroat. He fails, so one expects Russell’s return to the penitentiary where he spent unspecified time for accidentally killing the child. But the final shot shows Russell alone, seated at a table, staring into the darkness. Nothing has changed for him. We might assume that Wesley, a bit of a sexual rival to Russell, turned him loose out of their shared love of Lena. But none of this is addressed. Russell simply returns to the nothingness of his life in Braddock.
As I said at the outset, Out of the Furnace is probably a minor work – its ideas are insufficiently expansive to indicate a major film. I compared it here to The Deer Hunter since, as I indicated, these easy comparisons are so often gotten away with, without argument, by journalism. What Cooper’s film does, it does with some intelligence, and without the obfuscation, the attempt to mystify the audience, that we see in films almost universally respected. Of course works can be ambiguous (The Turn of the Screw, The Bostonians) but one necessarily looks for evidence warranting the appreciation of the author’s motives, the foundations for ambiguity. Too often what passes for ambiguity in mass culture is the need to have it both ways for commercial reasons that are always ideological, always resulting in a contemptible mess.
My thanks, as always, to Tony Williams for his work on the Vietnam cinema.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International.
Britton, Andrew (2009), “Sideshows: Hollywood in Vietnam,” Britton on Film, Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
Wood, Robin (2003), “Two Films by Michael Cimino,” Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan and Beyond, New York: Columbia University Press.