Out of the Furnace: Do depictions of working class masculinity need to move on?

OUT OF THE FURNACE There’s a scene in Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace which sees Christian Bale’s character, steel mill-worker Russell Baze, sit unassumingly at a bar waiting for his brother, Rodney. Rodney, played by Casey Affleck, predictably stands him up.

We’ve met Rodney before (in this film and SO MANY other films): a young gambler who rubs shoulders with small town criminals, longing for the day he can leave the army having survived the traumas of war. On the TV above the bar, the news tells us that Barack Obama’s presidential campaign is in full swing. His supporters are making big claims and we remember that wave of hope that stretched wide six years ago when America was about to elect its first black president ending the eight year-governance of Bush’s Republican administration. But as hardworking, uncomplicated Russell waits for his brother, who’ll inevitably end up dead in Iraq or shot by a loan shark, you wonder what all the fuss was about. For these guys, it’s business as usual and business is one long hard slog for Russell and risky attempts at a quick buck for Rodney.

That seems to be Out of the Furnace’s main point and it’s not a great one. Yes, in the big picture of American politics and war, it’s guys like Rodney and Russell that are all but forgotten but it’s hardly a a brave new point. The characters are too familiar and the story’s arc rests on fairly predictable moments of quiet machismo. But my god, it’s shot beautifully. Loose, swaying shots give us a glimpse at tiniest moments in this already small town. Fleeting expressions, quiet contemplation and the industrial setting is captured in stunning rusty light.

The film bears clear resemblance to The Deer Hunter, Michael Cimino’s 1978 film starring Christopher Walken, Robert DeNiro and Meryl Streep. Also set in a small industrial town, Cimino’s film looks at the impact of the Vietnam war on working class Joes, it draws the scars of conscription and inserts Streep as a sweet female promise of home and love and all things good. Saldana plays a similar role as a kindergarten teacher who acts as a rock for Russell but silently refuses to stay tied to a man with such potential to cock up. The implication is that if Russell was that bit more sensible, he’d earn the love of a good woman. That’s an annoying trope to say the least.

But Out of the Furnace does have distinct differences to The Deer Hunter which make it worth seeing. For one, the machismo is toned down and multidimensional. For Rodney, it’s all about pride, ego and stubbornness (another tiresome trope) but Russell’s sensibility adds something refreshing if not entirely new. He’s unambitious, a tenacious worker with weaknesses and when Saldana’s character leaves him for a policeman (Forest Whittaker – completely wasted in this) he handles it with grace.That said, Woody Harelson’s psycopathic drug dealer character and Willen Defoe’s manipulative mob boss are cardboard cut out baddies.

Over and above the story or the characters, the visuals of this film, as put together by Masanobu Takayanagi (whose previous work includes Silver Linings Playbook) go from icy cool blues to ominous reds to warm almost romantic pans of the town. But it’s the slow, loose camera that’s so alluring.

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