Before I quit my job at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to play at being a writer, I was a regular contributor to the Eleventh Stack blog. I was free to write about pretty much any material in the Library’s catalog. It was great! On Thursdays, I’ll revisit some of my old faves. A version of this post – my first contribution to the blog – first appeared on April 10, 2014. It was later reposted on June 8, 2017. This post contains affiliate links.
Pittsburgh has a long history with film, and Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace is a welcome, breathtaking addition to that tradition.
The movie, which has no relation to Thomas Bell’s novel Out of This Furnace, opens at a drive-in movie theater. The image projected on the screen is that of a well-dressed businessman, ascending an escalator. As he rises, the camera pans down into the field of parked cars. This particular scene didn’t stand out the first time I saw it, but I found it striking upon a rewatch. Drive-in movie theaters have all but disappeared – time capsules from a bygone era (although they’ve seen a resurgence in 2020 thanks to you-know-what). The camera’s descent into this relic, juxtaposed with the ascent of a sharp-dressed businessman exemplifies one of the many themes of the movie: the times are changing; out with the old and in with the new. It’s at this intersection that we’re introduced to Harlan DeGroat, the movie’s meth-head villain, played with unhinged menace by Woody Harrelson. An angry, frothing evil practically bleeds out of his eyes. He’s not a villain you love to hate; he’s a villain you hate with a passion and hope he gets his comeuppance.
Beyond the theme of change, the central theme is that of choice. The movie’s tagline, “Sometimes your battles choose you”, is characterized through the struggles of mill worker Russell Baze, played by Christian Bale in one of his best performances. A decent man by all accounts, we struggle along with Baze as he is constantly put into trying situations. How far will he go to help his Iraq-vet brother, Rodney (played with subtlety by Casey Affleck), get out of debt? How will he be able to care for his ailing father? How is he going to live if the mill he works at closes?
There’s really nothing new about the narrative here, but the actors infuse such realism into their scenes that you have to take notice of what’s unfolding, despite the deliberate pace of the film.
And that’s one of the reasons why I love Out of the Furnace.
These characters seem natural, organic, born from the blast furnaces that forged our city. There isn’t a false note in anyone’s performance. Even relative newcomer Zoë Saldana holds her own against a heavyweight like Bale. And speaking of Bale, he might as well be giving an acting master class in this film. It baffles me that he got his Oscar nomination for American Hustle instead of this. He has a scene on a bridge with Saldana that is better acted than most of Hustle’s entire runtime. The scene is so real, bubbling over with palpable emotion that you almost feel like a voyeur watching them.
Bale looks so much like a genuine Pittsburgh mill worker, hardworking and worn, that I’ll forgive him for not having a typical yinzer accent. The film is likely better for it. Despite that, he embodies Pittsburgh, complete with Braddock’s zip code tattooed on his neck (which was inspired by Braddock’s mayor’s similar tattoo). He wouldn’t look at all out of place at a bar like Jack’s or Dee’s on the Southside.
And speaking of Pittsburgh landmarks, another reason I love this movie is because I love seeing Pittsburgh on film. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m seeing the streets I’ve walked projected onto a twenty-two-foot screen in a darkened theatre. It makes the city seem monumental, almost mythical. Maybe every New Yorker feels this exhilaration upon exiting the theatre. Maybe that’s why they call it movie magic.
Beautifully shot on Kodak film as opposed to captured digitally, there’s something that makes the film feel authentically Pittsburgh. Honestly, Braddock has never looked better and during the film’s climax; the Carrie Blast Furnace almost outperforms Bale and Harrelson with its grandness.
But there’s something else at work here.
There’s something so honest about seeing the cracked streets, boarded up houses and laboring smokestacks of Braddock on-screen, alongside a movie that is so much about perseverance despite obstacles. Pittsburgh is no longer “hell with the lid taken off.” Even the fish have returned to our rivers (I still wouldn’t eat them, though). Pittsburgh has pulled itself up out of the furnace and taken matters into its own hands, just like Baze ultimately does in the end. It’s almost as if Cooper captured the driven character of Pittsburgh.
Also starring Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker, Out of the Furnace is a slow-burning revenge film that has stayed with me since I first saw it in the fall of 2013. I’d liken its tone to another one of my favorite films of that year – Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. I used to get the urge to watch Prisoners every time it rained, which as a result of living in Pittsburgh was roughly three hundred times a year (I realize this probably says more about me than any psychiatric test could, but I digress). I feel like I could always watch Out of the Furnace, though. Despite its somber tone, there’s an underlying steadfast hopefulness about the whole thing.
When we lose everything, we fear nothing and that spurs us on to take action.
Oh Pittsburgh, how I love to see you on film. It’s been a few years since I revisited this film, but retooling this post reminded me of everything I loved about it. It’s a hard film to watch because it is so dire at the surface level. However, that underlying hopefulness I talk about is what keeps me coming back. Both to this film and this city. As the philosophers of TOTO once said, “It’s gonna take a lot to drag me away from you”. Or maybe just gentrification.