Out of the Furnace is a 2013 film about a man seeking to enact revenge on the brutal criminals responsible for his brother’s death. With Christian Bale leading the cast and major stars like Woody Harrelson and Zoe Saldana rounding it out, the filmmakers made it clear early in the production that this would not be a typical revenge thriller. The film has more in common with a Bruce Springsteen album than it does with Death Wish.
Producer and Relativity founder Ryan Kavanaugh purchased the rights to Out of the Furnace with actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and the two spent five years working to develop it. Upon its release, the film earned praise for the performances of its stars and its bleak, unflinching portrayal of the types of crimes—and the types of lives—that so often go overlooked in America. Out of the Furnace appeared on at least five critics’ lists of the top ten best films of 2013—including that of Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun-Times and Chris Nashawaty of Entertainment Weekly.
What critics and audiences could not have fully appreciated at the time, however, was just how attuned the filmmakers were to the country’s social climate. More recently, the media has given much more attention to a class of American people whose own lives mirror the hopelessness captured in Out of the Furnace. These are people with a story to tell, and this is a film that told it before the narrative was thrust onto a national stage.
Here’s why Out of the Furnace deserves another look four years after its release.
Blue Collar Characters
Again, Out of the Furnace feels like what might’ve happened if Nebraska-era Bruce Springsteen decided to take up filmmaking. Its major characters include an Iraq war veteran struggling to adjust to life back home, a steel mill worker realizing his dreams of a better life may never come true, and a group of criminals occupying a backwoods corner of northern New Jersey.
In other words, this is the rare film that consists almost entirely of blue collar characters who may never see a life beyond the one they’ve always known. This desperation isn’t treated with condescension, humor, or blame—nor does the film glamorize poverty or uphold the characters as somehow more noble or “pure” than the rest of us. These characters give voice to people whose stories aren’t usually shared in mainstream Hollywood films. It’s no secret that many Americans are struggling just as much as the characters in Out of the Furnace.
The fact that a main character in the film is an Iraq War veteran shouldn’t be overlooked. Although there have been major films addressing that conflict already, fewer have acknowledged the challenges that often confront those who have completed their service. Most movies about the Iraq War tend to focus on the war itself. If they touch on the aftermath, it’s often to explore how families grieve for the loss of a loved one.
We’ve reached a point in history when many soldiers who fought in the war have since tried to restart their lives back home. Unfortunately, due to factors ranging from PTSD to poor job opportunities, many have struggled to build a new life for themselves as civilians.
Out of the Furnace covered this topic with grim honesty four years ago. Since then, few major movies or TV shows have revisited it. While exceptions like American Sniper exist, they usually focus on veterans whose names we remember. Out of the Furnace reminds us there are plenty more who feel forgotten.
It doesn’t take a psychologist to understand that being out of work can cause feelings of anger, frustration, shame, and depression. Out of the Furnace is a major film, and like the best socially-conscious Hollywood movies—The Godfather, On the Waterfront, and The Deer Hunter, to name a few—it uses a popular genre format to express the emotional experiences of real people.
The film does not tell people that taking out their anger on criminals will help them. In fact, it does quite the opposite; it honestly depicts the fact that revenge does not solve life’s problems.
However, any message about revenge is somewhat beside the point. The point is that many real people in this country feel an anger and a depression that closely mirrors the emotions of the main characters. Unlike the protagonist, they’re not going to exorcise those demons by traveling to the mountains of New Jersey and avenging the death of a loved one.
Out of the Furnace is a movie that may be even more resonant today than it was upon its initial release. It captures a true emotional experience and depicts it in the form of a Hollywood revenge story. However, by avoiding the satisfying, neat conclusion that revenge thrillers typically feature, it speaks to a more nuanced truth about a part of America where many feel forgotten.
It takes a good film to capture the mood of an era. It takes a great film to predict it.