Out of the Furnace: A Film Review and Analysis
⁓ for Frank
Out of the Furnace, an American drama film directed by Scott Cooper, opens a floodgate to Russell Baze’s (Christian Bale) purportedly futile working class life. Portrayed as a mill worker in Pennsylvania steel country, he temporarily holds his life together by endeavoring to maintain a relationship with Lena Taylor (Zoe Saldana) and attending to his terminally ill father. He also keeps a dutiful eye over his younger brother, Rodney Baze Jr. (Casey Affleck) who, since his Iraqi tours, grapples with ordinary life and can only keep afloat by gambling and bare knuckle fighting. When Rodney realizes he can no longer afford to pay his debts, he blindly hands himself over to a backwoods gang for a fight organized by Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson), which he believes will get him out of the red. When he fails to return home, Russell refuses to rest in the law and, instead, embarks on his own mission that will turn his life forever.
Reviewers have described the compelling acting performances as the rescuing force of the film’s slow uncoiling of a relatively stagnant plot.1Rotten Tomatoes, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/out_of_the_furnace Other critics, outlining it as a revenge film, are irritable about the lack of rampant thrilling action, and have been left dwindling by the frays by the last scene of the film.2The Boston Globe, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPDSz4Nb05o The picture only becomes coherent and satiating when one can secure more than a mere superficial glance and indulge in its more in-depth psychological interstices by viewing it through a panoramic lens. The movie proves to be, rather than glitchy and fragmentary, a deliberate and careful unfolding of the more perplexing and realistic struggle ensnaring us in the contemporary world. This essay is an opportunity to delve under the first skin and evulse the root of the mainstream’s turbulent perception of masculinity, and attempt to sew and clasp the hook to the eye.
Out of the Furnace, powerful and raw in its delivery, is a vis-à-vis with the manifestation of the human crisis existing as a flooding of the masculine culture in negative form. This film is an inevitable example of a limping masculinity: a humanity which is off kilter because we lack the feminine.3Harris, M. “Facing the Death Mother” (2015 Lecture) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1gWBA-ipjY
In Jungian psychology, our being consists of a dichotomy and is androgynous. In each of us there is contained the potential of developing both our feminine and masculine components. Women possess an animus (spirit or mind) and men possess an anima (soul) which both of the sexes are called to respond to, in order for humanity to continue its course towards a mature and responsible evolution.
The film sweats with manly dominance. The mother of Russell and Rodney is dead and their father also eventually dies. The only time their parents are united is when they are laid down in their graves. In more poetic terms, the feminine and masculine are not able to be syncretized and take life during the movie. The only woman who survives a long term stay emerges as Russell’s partner, Lena, but predictably, this relationship is unable to flourish.
This emphasizes that the nurturing, receptive, creative, ambiguous aspects of life are not active. Mainstream patriarchy bolsters an under-the-table confidence, dragging with it an inferior, counterproductive and caricatured form of the masculine component of both men and women. This fight face of masculinity, its exteriorized ‘tough’ and ‘macho’ screen, is a compensation for the deep wounding of genuine masculinity.
The introductory scene at the drive-in unravels with a sadistic rape-like ordeal depicting Harlan lodging a sausage down a woman’s mouth and throat, which on a physical level, constricts her voice and her breathing and which further symbolizes the inability of the feminine in both men and women to foster its own natural development.
Harlan arouses further atavistic fear by assaulting a man for attempting to save the woman (feminine aspect). Other men take a step forward but because they are embedded in an ego war of helplessness and self-preservation, they find themselves unable to make any headway. This spotlights their inferior masculinity which lacks reflection, humility, balance and the endurance to enable the feminine in themselves to initiate momentum.
If this film can be taken as a projection,4Zweig C, Abrams J. Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. Tarcher/Penguin.1991. which is a psychological defense mechanism, of our current collective drives, the phallic symbol of the sausage can be taken as a confirmation of our overwhelmingly superficial and overly-processed or sloppy penis-driven attitudes.
A person with severe psychopathic characteristics such as Harlan DeGroat will often display impulsive behaviors and a grave lack of introspection, neglecting their concern for consequences. This shows an infantile disturbance and consequent lacuna in conscience development, feeling and receptive capacity.5Meloy R J. (Ed). The Mark of Cain: Psychoanalytic Insight and the Psychopath. Routledge. 2001
Interestingly, while this brawl is taking place, the actual drive-in movie The Midnight Meat Train (2008) is being watched by the characters, further furnishing this projection as it skillfully elucidates the underlying primitive forces by taking a seemingly contradictory stance. This film device acts to show the persona or screen of this mainstream attitude. It shows a futuristic type video of a subway featuring a photographer, a male white-collar worker, escalators, and a train. The rapid picture reeks of surveillance and of an obsessively busy, cut-throat, routine and corporate male-dominated environment.
So, this internal screen subliminally reinforces the projection of our focus picture. Through these two paralleling screens, this idea of projection is paradoxically enriched. The backdrop movie shows how the digital, swish exterior of our modern society is actually the defensive screen for the inflamed, itchy story which is occurring under the water. Psychologically speaking, the film is the façade or the ego, and the focal point is the reality being played out in the unconscious. From this set-up, the two aspects weld an inextricable bind.
This contrast further tightens the motif of defense or screening due to denial in the collective. The backdrop picture, serving up the tones of a progressive, technologically advanced, switched-on and slicked back society, shows how whitewashed our sense of reality is. Since our assault on the feminine is what is occurring beneath all this gloss, our false self manipulates us into ‘taking a dive,’ that is, to deliberately lose to gain ego-driven and sociopathic rewards such as money or power. And this is how Rodney (appropriately, his name meaning fame), in his last fight, seals his deal with death.
The hard lesson here is that gain without patience, discipline, ritual and process will simply backfire. Our surface behaviors and attitudes betray the reality which is erupting underneath. The exaggerated simulation of control and security provided by this implicit screen provides the audience an opportunity to confront the collective persona. This false self will present in opposite form to offset what is happening underneath in one’s unconscious. Therefore the wide view of the film which is set in the dour town of Braddock is just the other side of the same coin. In other words, it is analogous to the destructive patriarchal collective crisis of our times.
This ‘screening device’ is again used to highlight the tragedy of Rodney in that he fails to acknowledge his own vulnerability and pain and relies on his brother, Russell, as substitute ‘Mother.’ He is unable to acknowledge and mourn the loss of his mother’s love and take responsibility for his own suffering. Instead, driving his trauma and rage out into the world and as a cyclic ring of events, he inescapably fails to save himself. Projection, which distances a victim from anxiety and reality, grates and grinds incessantly against the urge towards nurture and the restorative values of process and of healing.
The high price of his succumbing to denial is not that Rodney dies, but that he fails to know his ipseity and can never live his life as his own man. Russell, in order to sever his childhood wounds from consciousness, projects his own anguish by opting to resolve his brother’s instead. Although, on a rational level this appears honorable, it ineluctably cuts off his relationship with his own inner-self. This temptation of looking out rather than looking in is reiterated when Russell visits the Church. As well as being a positive endeavor to connect with religious experience, it at the same time misfires. Instead of looking into his own psyche or soul, he seeks the god for redemption in a clergyman, in a building or in the sky.
The jail reinforces Russell’s psychological entrapment, and his feeling permeates the audience via the dissonant collage of images and noises. The triggering, clashing and shuffling noises are like fragments of feelings and thoughts being rejected, as suggested by the repetition of plate scraping scenes where scraps of food are disposed of in a trash can. And this further submerges us in his trauma along with the dread of being watched as police pace up and down and gates scrape and lock. Music enters the movie only when emotion is able to surface; for example, in the second jail scene where the brothers meet, Russell physically reaches out to Rodney and there is a proclamation of brotherly love. It is only when the feeling function takes in air that we are rewarded with a sense of progression or relief in the film.
This analogy of ‘screening’ or hiding the true goings-on of a person’s psyche is also explicable in the scene where Russell asks his younger brother to reveal his hands because he discovers he is illegally fighting for money. Rodney struggles with this confrontation by pulling at his genitals, indicating a fidgety and irritable attitude towards manhood, and also poking out his longest finger while holding an alcohol bottle, revealing the vulgar phallic form an inverted manhood presents. This also serves to highlight how, reactionary attitudes and alcoholism frustrate the development of any healthy mature relationship.
Rodney’s hollow, child-like voice conjures the inner-child or orphan child archetype that embroils the two brothers. As a typical child would, he hides his hand in his pocket and starts to walk away. His anger—or more to the point, his fear—escalates as he recounts how during his Iraqi tour he had to carry one part of his friend’s body under one arm and the other half under the other, all of which symbolizes the ‘split man.’ The decapitated baby boy again shakes the audience into the realization that his constellated emasculation or figural castration stems from infancy.6Derrida J. The Death Penalty (Vol 2). The University of Chicago Press. 2017; 228-230 He could not develop his natural masculinity due to loss of mother and father love as his feeling ability, symbolized by the chest or heart, was isolated or cut off from his intellectual functioning.
The ‘feet in a heap’ he had to clean up during his tour also symbolizes he does not know how to act and move on to better understand his life. In a different scene, Harlan uses a syringe to inject himself with a drug substance in his foot. Again, phallic imagery and feet are used as tropes to mean attitudes and, in this context, a failed attempt to push through a mature masculinity. Remarkably Oedipus (meaning ‘swollen foot’) relates to the Oedipus myth and complex and reinforces the link between this motif and the three to five year old age range of endopsychic disturbance in the brothers.7I would like to acknowledge Brigid Burke, editor, for informing me of the Oedipal meaning ‘swollen foot’ from which I could extend my ideas on the Oedipus complex.
The inability to graduate from the birth phantasy of autochthony (the view that an infant creates itself and the world) into parthenogenesis and alterity (the view that sexual intercourse creates the infant), keeps the brothers fixated in an egocentric stage of development.8McQuillan, M. (Ed.). The Narrative Reader. Routledge. 2000; 77-78. Their glued view of autochthonous creation clarifies why they feel unable to accept the sexual union their mother and father shared and therefore could not successfully separate from them emotionally. For this reason, children often feel they instigate and are responsible for their trauma, which is in fact inflicted upon them. This reveals how guilt precipitated sadomasochistic behaviors to unconsciously activate a protective barrier or ‘screen’ that persists in the division of Russell’s and Rodney’s own masculine and feminine imprints.9Grotstein, J. S. Who is the Dreamer: Who Dreams the Dream? A Study of Psychic Presences. Routledge. 2000.
During the movie, drug substances are referred to as ‘candy’ and Harlan sucks on a lollipop which has a pacifier type function, and which also explains how the absence of love drives one to try to fill up the gaps with the child-like urge for a quick-fix solution like drug use which is not dissimilar to the way parents hand over candy to prevent their children from having a tantrum.
As we now re-enter the brother scene, we hear Rodney scream savagely, but not before he lifts his jacket as a screen between himself and his brother, indicating that a primal rage lies under his persona. He doesn’t understand how to resolve it. He walks away from it. He literally and symbolically shuts the door between him and his relationship with his older brother. Russell follows him as he feels responsible, so he opens the door and watches him burn off in his car.
Strikingly, he refers to his brother as ‘Little Fucker’ which confirms a tie, albeit a most unsavory one, with his wounded inner-child. Little Fucker, also refers, unconsciously, to the derogatory overhanging penis attitudes in the movie.10Armstrong H. R. A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World. Cornwall University Press. 2005; 90.
Rodney also refers to his brother as ‘Mother Fucker,’ revealing an unconscious hostile tie with his entwined brother and mother relationship and an unconscious rage against ‘abandonment’ due to his mother’s death. The auto accident, which functions as a manifestation of unconscious drives or a flashback derivative, in which Russell kills what we can assume to be a mother and her toddler son, exposes that he has inherited a guilt associated with the death of his mother which is riveted at a childish state and which he projects onto his younger brother. During the film, Russell assumes the mother role in such ways as promising to cover all of his brother’s debt and encouraging him to be responsible by working at the mill for a living.
The brothers’ uncle, Gerald ‘Red’ Baze (Sam Shepard), who cultivates orchids, offers one of his plants as a gift for Russell’s dead ‘Daddy.’ The fact that his mother was excluded here confirms the nugatory relationship to the feminine that the brothers grew up with. Here the word ‘Daddy’ unmasks the infantile relationship they have with the masculine. Significantly, Gerald means ‘ruler of the spear’ and the word ‘orchid’ comes from the Greek word ‘órkhis’ meaning testicle. Orchis in Greek mythology was the son of a nymph and satyr who tried to rape a priestess of Bacchus, the god of wine, and was subsequently killed as punishment: but from his corpse sprung the first orchid.
Also, the insertion of ‘red’ in his name could symbolize ‘seeing red’ or as in the Egyptian culture “doing red things”, meaning to act cruelly.11Von Franz M. L. The Golden Ass of Apuleius: The Liberation of the Feminine in Man. Shambhala Publications. 1992; 189. Again, in mythology the evil Seth was linked with the color red as he was the one who murdered Osiris, the fruitful king who embodied the Resurrection.
Superficially, Gerald ‘Red’ Baze pulls off the ‘old timer who has seen it all’ persona—a man of gravitas who knows when to act and when to submit to the law. But his emotional impoverishment betrays a ruthless undertone as he is actually a man who acts from his animal instincts and ingrained attitudes. Gerald shows that he condones and justifies Russell killing the psychopath Harlan, because he accompanies him on the way to his capture and, as a father figure, he fails to reflect on and question their motivations.
He also takes Russell hunting for deer. He shoots one through the heart, which draws up the color red, blood, the wine of Bacchus (the aqua permanens), suffering, life force and the feeling function.12Edinger E. F. Ego and Archetype. Shambhala Publications. 1972; 239 Deer represent a vulnerable innocence and this scene lays out clearly the wounds which their tattered fathering has left them.
Again, psychologically, the brothers’ psyches are enmeshed in a type of participation mystique relationship so they can be viewed as both separate and the same person. And since the uncle and the brothers’ father shared an affinity with each other, their brother relationship equates with the former. It can therefore be assumed that the father lived out a similar value system as the uncle.
A positive separation of attitudes between Russell and his uncle is both asserted in their different paths entering the woods and from their reaction to the deer. Russell, seeing perhaps that it has new antlers and is still very young, decides not to shoot it. But he lies to his uncle, telling him he hadn’t found one and again, we are faced with the motif of ‘screening’. Russell hides by lying—he cannot yet stand up against the power of his father complex.
The blood leaks out of the deer’s head as it does out of Rodney’s head before his death, perhaps an allusion to the crown of thorns to remind us what humanity must endure in order to find its vital life source. The uncle removes the antlers of his buck showing how the opportunity for protecting the female, regrowth, and fertility are dismissed. Rodney is Gerald’s sacrifice. Alternatively, Russell chooses not to do away with his innocence; instead he gives it the hope of regeneration and maturity.
The bridge scene featuring Russell and Lena gives us an insight into difficulty of crossing over into a change of perception and an attempt to reconcile the masculine and the feminine. Despite the bridge appearing more like a tunnel and then a cage, there is a turning point for Russell. The birds are heard in the background, sweet and light under the heavy drone of industrial life. This tunnel of sound only flows into music when Russell and Lena embrace and thus when there is union. This scene, as in another which shows a pile of unsent letters to Lena, is evidence that the masculine desires synthesis with the feminine to complete the magnum opus which is often literally and symbolically rewarded through a union, a pregnancy and a child.
It is significant that Lena works with young children because this emphasizes the yearning of mother care and love non-existent in Russell’s psychology. It is perhaps for this very reason that the dichotomy does not merge—Russell searches for his mother and not for his feminine counterpart.
The lack of adequate mother love in a boy will show up as an emotionally starved man, either in a stunted feeling ability and an inability to be open to warmth and love or an overdependence on motherly affection from a woman who cannot replace the mother because a partner calls for a different type of love which enhances the growth of each independent being.
Russell is not resolved enough to move into the next stage. On the other hand, Lena is perhaps too naïve and insecure to endure the pain and processing required to unite with her mature masculine counterpart. She throws away the baby with the bathwater, so to speak, because sticking it out through ‘sickness and in health’ requires absolute courage and sovereignty. At this stage of the movie she is pregnant by Chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker) with whom she forged a relationship during Russell’s term in prison. A policeman gives the feeling of a structured, polarized thinking society where every action is categorized into right or wrong, overlooking context and process and hence repudiating the paradoxical nature of genuine life.
Russell’s offering of faith is promised through his beautiful unscrewing of his voice’s tone which is a jolting but heartening breakthrough and which nakedly intrudes as his injured inner-child. His capacity for acceptance, in this moment of tragic loss of love, hooks up a much deeper unresolved vulnerability, a yearning for love and the feminine which has obviously been brought to a head and has been at a standstill at least since the trauma of his mother’s death. He describes the news of her pregnancy as ‘wonderful news,’ so his language becomes more moving, life-giving, and feminine, which acts to simultaneously unstitch the very lips of his wound, providing him with an entry point to the watery unconscious where he can catch the fish. It swims around in his consciousness to indicate a healthy progression towards transcendence.
Russell continues working at the furnace, which gives us a sense of his ability for hard work and discipline, showing he is advancing towards individuation. In alchemy, extractive metallurgy symbolizes getting to the core, finding your soul or true nature, finding the gold, as it were. The fire represents the burning of the old and the shaping of the new, a transformation.13Von Franz M. L. Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Inner City Books. 1980. And even though the furnace is at the point of closing down, it still shows his persistence and gives the hope that the process will not be stopped but merely disrupted. The steel mill also evokes the idea of rotation, of grinding grain into flour, which starkly opposes the vicious circle image formed by the ring of spectators around Rodney’s illegal and ruinous fist fights. The drama of his trauma repeats itself because he continues to feed it through denial.
So on a physical and psychic level, Russell remained on the bridge even though Lena, understandably, turned back. This pivotal scene extends to his drive to the join in the road where he killed the mother and her son in the car accident. There he expressed himself emotionally and laid a bouquet of white daisies, which in the Norse tradition, means purity and warmly celebrates childbirth and mothering.
In one sense, it is possible to view the characters as fragments of the protagonist. The psychopath is the part of him with blocked feeling who refuses to relinquish his vindictive attitudes. He won’t release himself to his more determined, natural self until, perhaps, towards the end of his life, as hinted by Harlan when, just before he dies, he says, “Hear them birds?”
As well as avenging Harlan on physical terms, the other aspect lies in his ability to shoot his own frangible intellect in the head. This shows that on an interior level, he has penetrated, just like the bullet. He understands or has assimilated his dead, cold, thinking aspects because the thinking function without feeling is like a climbing plant without tendrils.
The last scene depicts Russell in the dining room where he previously eats, symbolizing assimilation, and with his right arm extended on the table, makes the rosary tattoo on his arm conspicuous.14Jung C. G. The Seminars (Vol 1) Dream Analysis: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1928-30. Routledge.1938; 12. This relates to meditation and the cult of the Virgin Mary, who in the Catholic Church resembles the feminine loving goddess Isis, Osiris’ wife and sister, and therefore there is an acceptance of the mysteries of the feminine. There is a deep mood of introversion and introspection, a dark night of the soul, a pile of letters and photos where he can begin to awaken his memories and the unifying impetus and the beginning of his life.
|↑1||Rotten Tomatoes, https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/out_of_the_furnace|
|↑2||The Boston Globe, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OPDSz4Nb05o|
|↑3||Harris, M. “Facing the Death Mother” (2015 Lecture) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1gWBA-ipjY|
|↑4||Zweig C, Abrams J. Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature. Tarcher/Penguin.1991.|
|↑5||Meloy R J. (Ed). The Mark of Cain: Psychoanalytic Insight and the Psychopath. Routledge. 2001|
|↑6||Derrida J. The Death Penalty (Vol 2). The University of Chicago Press. 2017; 228-230|
|↑7||I would like to acknowledge Brigid Burke, editor, for informing me of the Oedipal meaning ‘swollen foot’ from which I could extend my ideas on the Oedipus complex.|
|↑8||McQuillan, M. (Ed.). The Narrative Reader. Routledge. 2000; 77-78.|
|↑9||Grotstein, J. S. Who is the Dreamer: Who Dreams the Dream? A Study of Psychic Presences. Routledge. 2000.|
|↑10||Armstrong H. R. A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World. Cornwall University Press. 2005; 90.|
|↑11||Von Franz M. L. The Golden Ass of Apuleius: The Liberation of the Feminine in Man. Shambhala Publications. 1992; 189.|
|↑12||Edinger E. F. Ego and Archetype. Shambhala Publications. 1972; 239|
|↑13||Von Franz M. L. Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Inner City Books. 1980.|
|↑14||Jung C. G. The Seminars (Vol 1) Dream Analysis: Notes of the Seminar Given in 1928-30. Routledge.1938; 12.|