Out of the Furnace: Rust-belt vs. Appalachia

By Mark Jackson, Epoch Times
December 5, 2013 Updated: December 5, 2013

Little known fact: the mountain people (the politically correct term for “hillbillies”) who live in the Ramapo mountains in New Jersey, are pretty much the same mountain-folk from the fabled Smoky and Blue Ridge mountains of the American South. (View featurette here)

In the same way that not all ghetto-dwellers are lawless, but some are, lawlessness does tend to pervade pockets all up and down the Eastern mountain range. In certain areas, drugs have replaced moonshine, but the guns and money are the same as they ever were.

“Out of the Furnace” is a well-told tale where U.S. rust-belt economic dire straits meet Appalachian mountain decadence. Similar to Sean Penn’s “The Indian Runner,” It’s a story of two brothers. One upstanding, the other damaged by war and descending into madness, they share brotherly love and hard luck.

Russell and Rodney Baze (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) are brothers living in Braddock, Pa., where the elder Russell works at the Carrie Furnace (hence the title). It’s a steel mill.

Millwork put their father on his deathbed, but Russell’s content to work there and make plans with beautiful girlfriend Lena Taylor (Zoe Saldana of “Avatar” fame).

Young Rodney’s a soldier, back from a third tour in Iraq. His PTSD manifests in compulsive gambling, and a berserker refusal to keep promises on the pre-planned dives of the illegal (and corrupt) backwoods bare-knuckle fighting to which he turns to pay his debts.

Rodney’s bar and betting tabs are rapidly rising. He’s in debt to fight manager and bar-owner John Petty (a pony-tailed Willem Dafoe) big time. What to do?

Go North, Young Man

Rodney’s answer is to take a big fight up north in the Ramapo Mountains, which turf is overseen by drug manufacturing, backwoods fight-club overlord Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, about as mean, dangerous, and far from “Cheers” as you never thought possible).

Rodney owes Petty, and Petty owes DeGroat, except Petty has an avuncular soul. Within DeGroat’s soul squats a demon of mercilessness. Chances are, DeGroat won’t make it into hell. His name shall most likely be blotted out of the Book of Life.

Similar to “Gone Baby Gone,” “Mystic River,” “A place beyond the Pines,” and even “Blue Velvet,” “Out of the Furnace” explores the festering underside of American moral depravity, while rounded by the beauty of American woodlands, and, in a certain sense, cozy communities. It’s a dark tale of revenge containing staggering scenes of great sadness.

One such scene is Russell coming home from four years of prison (due to killing a child while drunk driving) and visiting Lena at the kindergarten she works at.

She tells him of another man she now fully, inescapably, and devastatingly, belongs to. But her heart still utterly belongs to Russell, who was ripped away. Both actors so fully manifest this complex combination of love and devastating loss, the profound sadness of it will explode your tear ducts.

A Stellar Cast

Another such tear-duct destroyer is Rodney’s shattering, out-the-blue descriptions of war atrocities he’s experienced. We glimpse inside the door of his daily personal hell. Count on an Oscar nomination for Casey Affleck.

Forest Whitaker, in a small cop role, shows why he’s a character-actor’s character-actor. Compare this role to the one he played in “The Butler,” and you’ll appreciate the craft.

Most eerily impressive scene: in search of Rodney who’s gone missing, Russell tries to sneak up on the mountain drug-community. It’s nighttime. ATVs and muscle cars abound, parked beside a neon-lit convenient store.

He pulls the time-honored American male ritual of kowtowing to the horsepower enhancement-work of some mountain-teen’s cherry-red Chevelle. Danger hangs invisibly like the voltage in a maximum-security electric fence.

Neck tattoos in abundance, it’s ironic to note that in these traditionally deeply racist mountain enclaves, the sideways-worn ball-caps and pants-on-the-ground displays of Hip-hop culture have snuck in the back door of Mountain culture, and the house owners are unaware of the infiltration. Not surprising, as both communities share the limited life options of the military and of prison. 

“Out of the Furnace” is an actor’s film, full of actor’s actors. Being a former actor himself, the reviewer was in actor-heaven.

Being also an orthodox-level practitioner of Buddhist-Taoist philosophy, the reviewer’s violence- enjoying self struggles with his emerging, violence-eschewing Buddha-nature.

Often highly conflicted by movies’ escalating trend towards hyper-violence, he sometimes contemplates quitting reviewing these violent movies. But he won’t. He’ll just tell you to avoid seeing them. But not when they’re really good.


Out of the Furnace
Director: Scott Cooper
Starring: Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Willem Dafoe, Sam Shepard, Forest Whitaker
Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes
Rating: PG-13
3.5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch